For some reason, I thought I had another week to make my Baileys Women’s Prize shortlist predictions and so I had only a vague impression of which novels I’d like to see on there other than two standouts: Laline Paull’s The Bees and Rachel Cusk’s Outline; both of which made the grade.
Paull’s The Bees is one of those reads that is so original that when someone asks you to recommend what they should read after it, it’s almost impossible to answer. For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a book with almost no human characters; it’s about bees. It’s an animal narrated fantasy, a dystopian work, and a wildly creative piece of environmental fiction. Flora is born into the hive (which should conjure up images of oppressive totalitarian regimes) and doesn’t fit in. She rebels, as we would expect, and finds herself answering to a higher calling than that of the rest of the hive who live to accept, obey, and serve.
Like The Bees, Outline is based on an unusual idea: the protagonist is a novelist who has gone to Athens to teach a creative writing course. While this is not strange in itself, what is unique is how Cusk approaches that material. As readers we only learn the haziest of details about our protagonist; she exists only in outline. Instead it is those she interacts with that jump off the page: a fellow passenger on the flight to Athens, another teacher, her students. There isn’t a story in the way we traditionally think of story, and yet the novel is mesmerizing. I almost didn’t read Outline because the cover and blurb didn’t enticingly convey how wonderfully this concept is executed. I would have missed out.