Commonwealth Book Prize 2013 Shortlist
Sarah House, Ifeanyi Ajaegbo (Nigeria)
Pan Macmillan South Africa
IFEANYI AJAEGBO is a development consultant and communications practitioner who lives and works in Port Harcourt in Nigeria. His writing has won awards and fellowships, including the 2005 African regional prize for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. Sarah House is his first novel.
Nita wakes up one night to discover herself in a dark world very different from the life of opportunities promised to her by Slim, the man she loved and trusted to take her away from the small island town of Opobo, Nigeria. Soon she realises she is a slave, bought and sold without her consent and forced into a life of prostitution and sleazy strip clubs.
Every day Nita walks a tightrope of survival surrounded by vicious pimps and thugs. She meets Tega, a fellow slave lured into prostitution by Slim; she is sold to Madam, who runs Sarah House and makes money from young girls and children; she finds favour with Chief, an influential politician who provides protection for Madam’s illicit business in human trafficking, and she must survive Lothar, a renegade porn film maker. Life in this nightmare world gets more complicated when Nita meets pretty, young Damka and is approached by a police detective working undercover.
When Damka disappears and Nita discovers the child’s bloodied clothes in a room in Sarah House, she knows she has to work with the police in spite of the dangers to her own life.
Disposable People, Ezekel Alan (Jamaica)
EZEKEL ALAN was born and raised in rural Jamaica and spent his formative years under the Socialist regime of the 1970s. He currently lives with his wife and kids in an architecturally noteworthy house in Asia, has a good, reliable dog and a satisfyingly abundant supply of sweet, juicy mangoes. Inspired by true events, Disposable People is Ezekel’s debut novel. He is currently working on his second.
Ten year old Kenneth Lovelace often went to bed without dinner. Instead of feeling hunger, however, what he mostly felt was fear and shame, knowing that his family’s poverty was the reason he had no food. Kenneth also recalls his bitterness whenever his parents locked him out of their tiny, one-room house to act on their ‘urge’. This was in the 1970s, when Jamaica’s socialist regime was dragging the country into bankruptcy, and when an Old Timer had told him that he was cursed since birth. Beginning with his earliest memories, “Disposable People” traces the life of Kenneth Lovelace, now a consultant living in the USA. After a string of failed marriages, bad relationships and other misfortunes, Kenneth looks back at his life in his old, hateful village with hopes of finding the roots of his latest tragedy. What comes out is a story of mischief and adventures, sex, prejudice, evil spirits, adversities and, progressively, violence.
Floundering, Romy Ash (Australia)
ROMY ASH is a Melbourne-based writer. She has written for Griffith REVIEW, The Big Issue and Frankie magazine. She has a regular cooking column in Yen magazine and writes for the blog Trotski & Ash. The forthcoming Voracious: New Australian Food Writing features one of her essays. Floundering is her first novel.
Tom and Jordy have been living with their gran since the day their mother, Loretta, left them on her doorstep and disappeared. Now Loretta’s returned, and she wants her boys back.
Tom and Jordy hit the road with Loretta in her beat-up car. The family of three journeys across the country, squabbling, bonding, searching and reconnecting. But Loretta isn’t mother material. She’s broke, unreliable, lost. And there’s something else that’s not quite right with this reunion.
They reach the west coast and take refuge in a beachside caravan park. Their neighbour, a surly old man, warns the kids to stay away. But when Loretta disappears again the boys have no choice but to ask the old man for help, and now they face new threats and new fears.
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron (Canada)
NAOMI BENARON holds an MFA and a master of science degree in Earth Sciences, is a certified orthopedic massage therapist and an Ironman triathlete, teaches online for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and works with the Afghan Women’s Writing Project online and with African refugees in Arizona. She speaks French, was once fluent in Hebrew, and is learning Kinyarwanda.
Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them.
Mazin Grace, Dylan Coleman (Australia)
University of Queensland Press
DYLAN COLEMAN is a Kokatha (Indigenous Australian from this particular area)–Greek woman who grew up in Thevenard, on the far west coast of South Australia. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Adelaide, where she teaches Indigenous health, and her short stories have been published in Southerly and various anthologies. For over twenty years Dylan has worked across Aboriginal education, health, land rights, and the Arts, with a focus on Aboriginal community engagement and social justice. Dylan lives on the outskirts of Adelaide with her partner and son.
With the powerful, rhythmic sounds of Aboriginal English and Kokatha language woven through the narrative, Mazin Grace is the inspirational story of a feisty girl who refuses to be told who she is, determined to uncover the truth for herself. Growing up on the Mission isn’t easy for clever Grace Oldman. When her classmates tease her for not having a father, she doesn’t know what to say. Pappa Neddy says her dad is the Lord God in Heaven, but that doesn’t help when the Mission kids call her a bastard. As Grace slowly pieces together clues that might lead to answers, she struggles to find a place in a community that rejects her for reasons she doesn’t understand. In this novel, author Dylan Coleman fictionalizes her mother’s childhood at the Koonibba Lutheran Mission in South Australia in the 1940s and 1950s.
Tiger in Eden, Chris Flynn (Australia)
CHRIS FLYNN is author of A Tiger in Eden (Text Publishing, 2012) and editor of Terra Australis: Four Stories from Aboriginal Australian Writers in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Issue 41. His writing has appeared in Griffith REVIEW, Meanjin, The Paris Review Daily, Monster Children, The Silent History, The Age, The Australian, The Big Issue and many other publications.
Beautiful beaches, sexy young backpackers, cheap drinks: Thailand is perfect for Billy, a Loyalist street fighter on the run from the Northern Ireland police.
A heady ride of sex, drugs, and bar-room brawls, A Tiger in Eden is a raucous debut novel in the anti-tradition of Trainspotting and The Beach.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce (United Kingdom)
RACHEL JOYCE is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and for which Rachel Joyce was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards New Writer of the Year 2013. She has written over twenty original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and major adaptations for the classic Serial and Woman’s Hour, as well as a TV period drama for BBC 2. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for Best Radio Play. She lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and four children.
Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.
The Headmaster’s Wager, Vincent Lam (Canada)
VINCENT LAM is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. Trained in Toronto, he is an emergency physician and a lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first book, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Lam is the co-author of The Flu Pandemic and You, which received an award from the American Medical Writers Association in 2007, and the author of a biography of Tommy Douglas, published as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series. He and his family live in Toronto.
Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Chen Academy. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. But when his only son gets in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send him away. In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival’s new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)
Perera-Hussein Publishing House
NAYOMI MUNAWEERA is a Sri Lankan-American author and artist. Having migrated to Nigeria when she was very young and later to America, she continued visiting Sri Lanka regularly, witnessing the devastation wrought upon her country of birth by civil war. These experiences led her to write her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which was published by the Perera Hussein Publishing House in late 2012. The novel was an instant commercial success, and received critical acclaim by being long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012. Nayomi who is an alumni of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation and the Intersection for the Arts Interdisciplinary Writer’s Workshop, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the fate of two families, one Tamil, one Sinhala as they straddle opposite sides of the long and brutal Sri Lankan civil war. Narrated by the eldest daughter of each family, the story explores how each woman negotiates war, migration, love, exile, and belonging. At its root, it’s a story of a fragmented nation struggling to find its way to a new beginning.
The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell (United Kingdom)
LISA O’DONNELL won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for her screenplay The Wedding Gift. Recently she took a break from screenwriting when she moved to LA with her two children. Her debut novel, The Death of Bees was published in 2012.
Two young sisters attempt to hold the world at bay after the mysterious death of their parents.
Marnie and her little sister Nelly are on their own now. Only they know what happened to their parents, Izzy and Gene, and they aren’t telling. While life in Glasgow’s Hazlehurst housing estate isn’t grand, they do have each other. Besides, it’s only one year until Marnie will be considered an adult and can legally take care of them both.
As the new year comes and goes, Lennie, the old man next door, realizes that his young neighbours are alone and need his help. Or does he need theirs? But he’s not the only one who suspects something isn’t right. Soon, the sisters’ friends, their other neighbours, the authorities, and even Gene’s nosy drug dealer begin to ask questions. As one lie leads to another, dark secrets about the girls’ family surface, creating complications that threaten to tear them apart.
The Spider King’s Daughter, Chibundu Onuzo (Nigeria)
Faber and Faber
CHIBUNDU ONUZO was born in Nigeria in 1991 and is the youngest of four children. She is currently studying History at Kings College, London. When not writing, Chibundu can be found playing the piano or singing.
‘The Spider King’s Daughter’ is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet set against the backdrop of a changing Lagos, a city torn between tradition and modernity, corruption and truth, love and family loyalty. Seventeen-year-old Abike Johnson is the favourite child of her wealthy father. She lives in a sprawling mansion in Lagos, protected by armed guards and ferried everywhere in a huge black jeep. But being her father’s favourite comes with uncomfortable duties, and she is often lonely behind the high walls of her house.
A world away from Abike’s mansion, in the city’s slums, lives a seventeen-year-old hawker struggling to make sense of the world. His family lost everything after his father’s death and now he runs after cars on the roadside selling ice cream to support his mother and sister.
When Abike buys ice cream from the hawker one day, they strike up an unlikely and tentative romance, defying the prejudices of Nigerian society. But as they grow closer, revelations from the past threaten their relationship and both Abike and the hawker must decide where their loyalties lie.
Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto (India)
Aleph Book Company
JERRY PINTO has been a mathematics tutor, school librarian, journalist and columnist and is now associated with MelJol, an NGO that works in the sphere of child rights. His published works include a book of poems, Asylum and Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, which won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema in 2007. He has also edited an anthology of writings on Goa, Reflected in Water, and co-edited an anthology on his native city, Bombay, Meri Jaan.
In a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in Mahim, Bombay, through the last decades of the twentieth century, lived four love-battered Mendeses: mother, father, son and daughter. Between Em, the mother, driven frequently to hospital after her failed suicide attempts, and The Big Hoom, the father, trying to hold things together as best he could, they tried to be a family.
The Wildings, Nilanjana Roy (India)
Aleph Book Company
NILANJANA ROY spent most of her adult life writing about humans before realizing that animals were much more fun.
Her column on books and reading for the Business Standard has run for over 15 years; she also writes for the International Herald Tribune on gender. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in several journals and anthologies, including Caravan, Civil Lines 6, Guernica, the New York Times’ India blog, Outlook and Biblio. She is the editor of A Matter of Taste: The Penguin Book of Indian Food Writing. Nilanjana Roy lives in Delhi with two cats and her husband, and on Twitter at twitter.com/nilanjanaroy.
A small band of cats lives in the labyrinthine alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighbourhood in Delhi. Miao, the clan elder, a wise, grave Siamese; Katar, a cat loved by his followers and feared by his enemies; Hulo, the great warrior tom; Beraal, the beautiful queen, swift and deadly when challenged; Southpaw, the kitten whose curiosity can always be counted on to get him into trouble… Unfettered and wild, these and the other members of the tribe fear no one, go where they will, and do as they please. Until, one day, a terrified orange-coloured kitten with monsoon green eyes and remarkable powers, lands in their midst—setting off a series of extraordinary events that will change their world forever.
The Great Agony & Pure Laughter of the Gods, Jamala Safari (South Africa)
JAMALA SAFARI was born in the DRC, but has been given refugee status and now resides in South Africa. He has published a short collection of his poems, but this is his first novel, and first publication with a conventional publisher.
Risto Mahuno’s agony is what happens to his sweetheart Néné, to his cousin, and to himself. In the east of the Congo, where the border with Rwanda is also the border between life and death, the boys are abducted and forced to become soldiers, the girls raped.
Far too much happens for 15-year-old children. Néné is claimed by the warlord, Risto’s cousin killed, and Risto, his eyes already dead, is beaten to the brink.
His fate flings him south, on a fraught journey by foot or whatever ride he can get, to Mozambique, where he arrives with even less of himself left. And yet the gods are laughing, for Risto’s journey back holds promise of love, peace and family.
The Last Thread, Michael Sala (Australia)
MICHAEL SALA is an Australian writer and teacher. His short fiction has been published in various anthologies, including The Best Australian Stories three times. In 2007, he was shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. The Last Thread, published by Affirm Press in 2012, is his first novel.
The Last Thread is Michael Sala’s fascinating life in fiction. From his early years in the Netherlands to growing up in Australia during the 1980s, Michael recalls the secret surrounding his estranged Greek father and how scandalous events from the past fractured his family. This is a moving chronicle of a boy’s turbulent relationship with his bullying stepfather, aloof older brother and adored mother, whose cheerful apathy has devastating consequences. As his life unfolds, Michael – now a father – must decide if he can free himself from the dark pull of the past.
Reminiscent of the great autobiographical novels of JM Coetzee and Michael Ondaatje, The Last Thread is a beautifully crafted work from an exceptional new writer.
The Other Side of Light, Mishi Saran (India)
MISHI SARAN is the author of the best-selling book Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang, a chronicle of a year spent retracing a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk’s travels to India on the Silk Road. After a BA in Chinese Studies from Wellesley College, she was a journalist in Hong Kong, publishing widely in international media. Her short stories have won awards and been broadcast on the BBC.
Mishi Saran lives in Shanghai with her husband and daughter. She is working on her next novel, set in Shanghai in the 1930s.
The gift of an old camera transforms Asha’s life. Parents and home; best friends Nishita, Meethi, Melana; the intriguing Kabir – she leaves them all to spend a year in a Swiss mountain village, learning to see the world through a different lens.
There is a price to pay. Back home in Delhi, life has moved on; her three friends have wandered in new directions, her father is ill, and Kabir has found new purpose in Assam.
In the background, a country too changes shape; the Emergency locks India into strife, the riots of 1984 unleash a dormant savagery. Bombay becomes the target of terrorists. Amidst the chaos, Asha must find the threads of a new beginning that will once again take her away from the land she loves.
God on Every Wind, Farhad Sorabjee (India)
FARHAD SORABJEE lives in Mumbai, India. He is the author of several playscripts and two film scripts. His play Hard Places was developed as part of the Royal Court International programme and opened in Colchester, UK in 2012 before touring to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, India.
When Philomena, a born rebel—disillusioned with her middle-class comfort and the expectations of her parents—and Nestor, an impoverished African exile with the heart of a poet, meet by chance on the streets of 1960s Bombay, their attraction will change their lives forever. Spanning two continents and following a story of love, loss, and politics—set against a backdrop of turbulent societies, times, and allegiances—this powerful debut novel explores the possibilities and limitations of individual and political revolution.
Sterile Sky, E.E. Sule (Nigeria)
E. E. SULE is the pen-name of Dr. Sule E. Egya who is an associate professor in Department of English, Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai, Nigeria. Besides published academic work and essays, Dr.Egya is the author of the short story collections Impotent Heavens and Dream and Shame, and the poetry volumes Naked Sun, Knifing Tongues and What the Sea Told Me. His poems, short stories, and critical work have appeared in numerous journals, anthologies and literary magazines. Sterile Sky is his first novel.
As the gifted young Murtala comes of age in Kano, violent riots and his family’s own woes threaten to erase all he holds dear. Stalked by monsters real and imagined, desperate to preserve a sense of self and the future, Murtala hunts for answers in the wreckage of the city – and gives us a unique insight into modern life in northern Nigeria.
Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (India)
Faber and Faber
JEET THAYIL was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. He is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). He currently lives in New Delhi.
Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay. In Rashid’s opium room the air is thick with voices and ghosts: Hindu, Muslim, Christian. A young woman holds a long-stemmed pipe over a flame, her hair falling across her eyes. Men sprawl and mutter in the gloom. Here, they say you introduce only your worst enemy to opium. There is an underworld whisper of a new terror: the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, whose victims are the nameless, invisible poor. In the broken city, there are too many to count.
Stretching across three decades, with an interlude in Mao’s China, it portrays a city in collision with itself. With a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, it is a journey into a sprawling underworld written in electric and utterly original prose.
Beneath the Darkening Sky, Majok Tulba (Australia)
Penguin Books Australia
MAJOK TULBA lives in Western Sydney with his wife and children. He is CEO of the charity SudanCare; has had a film as a finalist at Tropfest; and has won an inaugural NSW Premier’s/CAL Western Sydney Writers’ Fellowship (now called WestWords Western Sydney Writers’ Fellowships).
When the rebels come to Obinna’s village, they do more than wreak terror for one night. Lining the children up in the middle of the village, they measure them against the height of an AK-47. Those who are shorter than the gun are left behind. Those who are taller are taken. Obinna and his older brother Akot find themselves the rebel army’s newest recruits.
But while Akot almost willingly surrenders to the training, Obinna resists, determined not to be warped by the revolution’s slogans and violence. In the face of his vicious captain’s determination to break him, Obinna finds help in a soldier called Priest, and in the power of his own dreams.
The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood (United Kingdom)
Simon & Schuster UK
BENJAMIN WOOD was born in 1981 and grew up in north-west England. In 2004, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing Programme at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he was also fiction editor of the Canadian literary journal PRISM International. Benjamin is now a lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. The Bellwether Revivals is his first novel, and was also shortlisted for the 2012 COSTA First Novel Award.
The Bellwether Revivals opens and closes with bodies. The story of whose bodies and how they come to be spread about an elegant house on the river near Cambridge is told by Oscar, a young, bright working class man who has fallen in love with an upper-class Cambridge student, Iris, and thereby become entangled with a group of close friends, led by Iris’s charismatic, brilliant, possibly dangerous brother. For Eden Bellwether believes he can heal — and perhaps more — through the power of music.