Cadaverine writers and editors make their fiction and poetry selections for 2014:
Phoebe Walker – Poetry Editor and Development Officer
For by far the most unsettling read of 2014, my prize goes to Benjamin Myers’ Beastings. The novel’s eerie Cumbrian landscapes – mountains like “great broad backs of creatures”, and forests of “black glass” – cast long, mournful shadows that perfectly match the sparsely beautiful, yet deeply unsettling timbre of the narrative.
Beastings charts the desperate flight of a mute, orphaned teenager with her employer’s baby, a child she looks upon as her own. They are pursued by an abusive priest, a biting ascetic driven by a combination of cocaine, a warped interpretation of the Bible, and a determination to stop the girl from spilling ruinous secrets. A poacher, his unwilling companion, adds spots of demotic humour to an otherwise harrowing narrative.
The book hums with violence, although it is never gratuitous, flaring out in brief, frightening scenes that are as sobering as they are shocking. Myers’ skill lies in controlling the atmosphere of suffering so that the reader becomes increasingly inured to these moments. Too often we approach word such as ‘hunger’ and ‘pain’ in the abstract; here, Myers brings them rawly to life in his descriptions of hunger so fierce that the fly-ridden remains of a squirrel are seen as bounty.
The language of Beastings is unembellished; deceptively spare for the most part, yet obviously painstakingly crafted. This pitch black tale surely mark Myers’ continued ascendancy as a contemporary novelist of note; despite, or perhaps because of, its bleakness, Beastings is a compelling and unnerving piece of prose.
Lee Farley – Fiction Reviewer
2014 was a cracking year for new fiction. Looking back over the 50 books I read this year (I’m not including books I didn’t finish or comics) I found it difficult to pick a favourite. Most of the 50 are books which were published in the last couple of years so I’m very happy to report that from my perspective, contemporary publishing is doing a brilliant job, particularly small independent publishers.
Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake describes a feral England devastated by the 1066 invasion. Loyalties are divided and the balance of power is fragile. We follow the rebellious and determined Buccmaster of Holland across East England, through the fens and forests of his homeland as he gathers a group of similarly disenchanted and disempowered followers to his cause.
This is a brutal, confused land of poverty, religious doubt and angry, marginalised beliefs. Kingsnorth never stresses the contemporary parallels, but the reader can’t fail to draw maps from 1066 to 2014.
In order to immerse readers in the 11th century world, Paul Kingsnorth has created a version of Old English which is initially impenetrable but quickly becomes familiar and powerful. I found it definitely added to the atmosphere and intensity of the experience. The invented language adds a layer of ritual and authenticity. This is a remarkable achievement and a book packed with ideas, relevance and artistry. It’s the most memorable book of 2014.
In another year, any one of the following books might have been my favourite, they’re all very highly recommended: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offilli; Beastings by Ben Myers; The Incarnations by Susan Barker and Lee Rourke’s Vulgar Things. In the last couple of days I found out the American novelist Kent Haruf had died. If you haven’t read his beautiful Plainsong trilogy, that’s highly recommended too.
Nici West – General Editor
My book of the year has to be James Smythe’s The Machine. I love that it's a contained, personal tale in a big conceptual world. Smythe’s writing has a certain lyricism to it and yet manages to stay concise and never self-indulgent. At its heart The Machine is a touching war story that could so easily ring true for many today.
Daniel Carpenter – Fiction Reviewer
For me this year, there are three books that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. Coincidentally, all of them were debuts.
First up is John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van. A disfigured twenty-something who makes his living as a dungeon master in a play by post roleplay game makes for a very compelling protagonist in this strange, quiet novel. Darnielle is best known for his band The Mountain Goats, and his background in songwriting comes through on the page. This is an oddball, gothic tragedy and a very fine debut.
Simon Sylvester’s debut novel The Visitors also toys with the gothic. His novel, a Selkie-myth infused mystery about a teenage girl living on a desolate Scottish island is both a perfect potboiler, and a beautifully realised coming of age story. No wonder that it won him the coveted Not the Booker Prize in The Guardian.
Finally though, my pick of the year is another award winning debut, this time a collection of short fiction. Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth is that rare thing; a perfect debut. Mixing truth and fiction, and playing with the reader, the stories dance around themes of sex and death. The book won The Green Carnation Prize earlier this month, and it’s not hard to see why.
Daniel reviewed Any Other Mouth for The Cadaverine: you can read it here.
James Trevelyan – Poetry Reviews Editor
2014 has been the year of the debut. Niall Campbell, Fiona Benson and Bobby Parker have all delighted with their first books and there are signs that another host of new voices will be coming through in 2015. For me, Liz Berry’s Black Country (Chatto & Windus) stole the show this year, though: a wonderful, praising, dialect-laden song to the area, its history, its people, and the poet’s place within that. A book of delicacies and flight, metamorphosis and language, and so full of soot and vowels that it has rolled around my mouth all year. Bostin!
Black Country was reviewed for The Cadaverine by Phoebe Powers: you can read it here.
Sohini Basak – Poetry Reviewer
I am increasingly becoming fond of themed poetry collections and Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is an exceptionally well designed book. It intricately makes a dialogue between the cartographer and the rastaman, with the narrator occupying an interesting third space. What emerges is a territory bigger than the cartographer's imagination, one that is beyond the points of a compass, and has to include everything from the shrug of lizards to glass-eyed souvenir dolls. I really admire the way Miller has transformed the various conflicts in the collection, ideological and personal, into a poetics of subversion, questioning our definition of knowledge. For sometimes, the River knows best: 'not all things ought to be known. / Not all places ought to be found.'
Thom Cuell – Fiction Reviews Editor
Two fiction debuts have stood out for me this year: Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger, and Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle. Both feature alienated young protagonists, but move beyond the hackneyed ‘rebel without a cause’ motif to produce challenging and exciting narratives.
Pilger’s novel is a savage, exhilarating read which satirises the conventions of romantic fiction whilst providing a commentary on the politics of post-feminism. Borrowing scenarios from rom-coms, jargon from academia and stylistic tics from alt.lit, Eat My Heart Out’s narrative moves along at a manic pace, with some brilliantly observed set pieces. There is plenty of material for interested readers to get their teeth into, thematically (and Pilger encourages this, inserting closely-observed parodies of academic literature into the text), but most of all this is a hugely entertaining novel, with brilliant set pieces, castrations (literal and metaphorical), scenes of outrageous hedonism and horrific comedowns.
Set in Dublin in the summer of 2003, Here Are The Young Men begins as a coming of age story – bleak, intense, yet also relatable – before turning into something far more brutal and unsettling. The story follows a group of friends who have just finished their school leavers’ exams. Wanting to make the most of the brief period of freedom before they are expected to start work and make a living, they set out to enjoy a few months of hedonism, but things begin to turn darker when one of the friends begins to display violently nihilistic tendencies. Here Are The Young Men is a brilliantly disturbing, powerful and confrontational novel which will stay with you long after you’ve put it down.