The OF Blog: Four literary awards-nominated novels reviewed

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Four literary awards-nominated novels reviewed

Below are four mini-reviews of books that were either longlisted or shortlisted for the 2014 Premio Strega (Italian) or 2014 Prix Médicis (French).  Due to time constraints, these will be one paragraph summary reviews.  Most, if not all, of these would likely have at least some appeal to English-reading audiences if translated into English:

Donatella di Pietrantonio, Bella Mia (2014 Premio Strega-longlisted title; Italian)

Bella Mia is set in the aftermath of the devastating April 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in central Italy.  Catherine, the protagonist, has survived while her twin sister dies.  Burdened with having to care for her sister's teenage son, Mark, the novel follows the difficult choices Catherine and her new fosterling have to make in clearing the detritus of their own pre-earthquake lives in order to build something new.  di Pietrantonio manages to craft a story that is at once familiar in its contours and yet somehow new and refreshing in its presentation.  While it was not a favorite of mine from the Premio Strega longlist, it certainly was an enjoyable novel to read.

Véronique Bizot, Âme qui vive (2014 Prix Médicis finalist; French)

Out of the eight titles that I read that were either longlisted and/or shortlisted for the 2014 Prix Médicis, I had the most difficulty grasping was was transpiring in Bizot's Âme qui vive.  Although it is only novella length, Bizot has constructed an intricate tale of four men (the narrator being now a mute), yet beyond the sometimes ornate prose stylings, it is her choice of throwing the reader in media res that makes it difficult to follow what is transpiring.  While the language barrier (I read French at an intermediate level now) might have something to do with it, it still seems that there are several narrative obstructions that lie between the reader and making sense of what otherwise seemed to be a moving story.

Pierre Demarty, En face (2014 Prix Médicis, longlisted title; French)

En face was an interesting story, precisely because its protagonist, Jean Nochez, truly is a non-entity:  no scandalous past, odd quirks, or dark secrets that beset him.  It is his seemingly sudden decision to rent a new apartment away from those with whom he has shared a fairly banal existence most of his adult life that provides the impetus for a story that somehow manages to make what would seem to be poor material for a gripping narrative into a story that kept my attention throughout its 156 e-print pages.  It was one of my favorite 2014 Prix Médicis-nominated books and while it did not advance to the finalist stage, it certainly was a book that that I thought was among the finer French-language works I read this year.

Nathalie Kuperman, La loi sauvage (2014 Prix Médicis, longlisted title; French)

La loi sauvage (The Savage Law) begins with a phrase ("Votre fille, c'est une catastrophe."; "Your daughter, she is a disaster.") that compels a mother to descend into a semantical hell of sorts in which all sorts of expressions, past and present, bubble up to the surface of her thoughts as she reexamines just how things have come to this point.  La loi sauvage was one of the more enjoyable works nominated for the 2014 Prix Médicis and like En face, while it was not chosen as a finalist for the award, it too was one of the more enjoyable French-language works published this year.  Kuperman's prose is exquisite and her characterizations are spot-on.  Simply put, this is a novel that I'll revisit in the years to come.

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