The James Tait Black Prizes
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Fiction shortlist

Fiction judge Dr Benjamin Bateman discusses the 2020 shortlist for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction.

Fiction judge

Dr Benjamin Bateman is Lecturer in Post-1900 British Literature at the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, The University of Edinburgh.

Staff profile

Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellmann, Ducks, Newburyport

Ellmann gives us a protagonist who, by her own admission, is broken—broken by her mother’s debilitation and death, by a bout with cancer, by the care needs of her four children, by a ne’er-do-well ex, and by incessant anxiety over school shootings, climate change, polluted water, and social interactions for which she lacks confidence. But what is so remarkable about this formally experimental novel is that while all that damage and worry can sometimes give the impression of a diminished woman—a woman others may not even see behind her tarts and pies—the kaleidoscopic nature of her thoughts, to which we as readers are given exclusive access, has the precise opposite effect; it expands her, sprawls her across the page, and makes her personal preoccupations seem larger than life. While others make constant demands on her time and attention, the novel itself indulges each and every one of her passing and persistent impressions—a spacious affordance, to say the least. But all this anxiety (and all those facts!) are exhausting, and the novel seems equally keen to document how our contemporary situation of sound bite media, gotcha politics, and digital overload wears us down and denies us the time to focus at length on any one problem, leaving us more exposed than educated.    

Helon Habila, Travellers

Helon Habila, Travellers

Most stunning in this novel is the way that Habila takes the weightiest of political and humanitarian issues, today’s tragic crisis of refugees and asylum seekers, and explores it in prose so light and lyrical that the reader is able to keep moving through the stories despite the gravitational pull of their pain. In other words, Habila’s prose conveys the coping techniques of traumatized characters whose grit and fortitude enable them to keep going against all odds and in the face of incredible oppression and deprivation. Part of what keeps them going is the ability to tell their stories, and Habila uses a mix of first-person narration, dynamic dialogue, and epistolary expression to give his tormented travellers unique and distinctive voices. Moving across North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and North Africa, the novel accumulates considerable narrative momentum as it stitches the personal perils of its refugees into a global tapestry that comes to feel like solidarity. A deeply learned novel, Travellers invokes a long history of elegiac and exilic writing—from Dostoevsky and Eliot to Tennyson and Arnold—whilst reworking that tradition to address a contemporary emergency.

Sarah Hall, Sudden Traveller

Sarah Hall Sudden Traveller

A remarkable achievement of this short story collection is the balance it strikes between inhabiting the particular viewpoints of its protagonists and making their traumatic experiences seem common and almost elemental. There is also a brilliant mix of the fantastical—like the woman-turned angel in “M,” who takes flight and targets odious men who have sexually abused women—and the everyday, like Dilly hungering after one more scone in “The Grotesques” and the woman in “Sudden Traveller” trying to grieve while having to attend to her breastfeeding baby. The use of second-person narration in “Sudden Traveller” is one of the many techniques Hall uses to make her mostly women characters accessible to her readers—to get her readers, that is, to travel suddenly with her. As her protagonists face their own deaths and the deaths of others, Hall’s precise and lyrical prose—unflinching but elegant at the same time—heightens their capacities for finding beauty in fear and for finding relief, like the mother in “Live That You May Live,” in time’s inevitable dispossessions.

Edna O’Brien, Girl

Edna O’Brien, Girl

What struck me most forcefully about this novel is the difference between the detailed research O’Brien conducted to write it and the style in which she chose to deliver it. She did painstaking research, traveling to Nigeria, reading countless reports, interviewing victims of Boko Haram, and talking to politicians, aid workers, doctors, and psychotherapists. But what could have ended up as a piece of journalistic fiction, or creative reportage, reads as anything but. The use of the first-person point-of-view makes the harrowing experience of this girl, and then young woman, feel intense, immediate, and personal. A danger of talking about mass anything—mass murder, mass rape, mass terror—is that it can convert the victims into statistics and make them seem like nothing more than an injured blob; and when it does that, it risks repeating the very dehumanization intended by the genocidal perpetrators. Countering that tendency, O’Brien gives texture to her damaged protagonist, Maryam. Maryam suffers, shuts down—bears all the traces of trauma—but she also creates, invents, feels, dreams, and thinks in ways that show her agency and nerve. In short, O’Brien demonstrates that fiction has a unique role to play in representing and redressing social horrors.