Caine Prize 2006

I had several days here in London to get to know the writers with whom I was shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, and plenty of time to read all the stories. I was impressed by the affection that Sefi Atta has for her characters, regardless of their moral failings, in “The Last Trip,” the story of a Nigerian drug mule who is forced to take her disabled son with her. I think Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s ear for dialogue is absolutely uncanny, as is his ability to tell a story almost entirely through that medium. His writing in “A Joburg Story” has music and texture to it, something that so few writers are able to accomplish. I greatly admired Muthoni Garland’s “Tracking the Scent of My Mother,” which combines an unusual structure with a very strong, literary voice–it was probably my favorite story among the five on the shortlist. And I loved Mary Watson’s “Jungfrau,” the story of a young girl trying to figure out the meaning of love in a household divided by different allegiances. I was particularly taken with the surprise that lurks between her sentences.

Last night, all the shortlisted writers were driven to Oxford for a reception in the garden of Exeter College. I was amused that so many people came up to ask, “Are you nervous?” And it didn’t seem to matter how many times one said that, “No, actually, I’m not,” that sort of answer didn’t seem to satisfy. Later, we had dinner at the Bodleian Library. I was hoping we might get a glimpse of the inside (it is, after all, the largest collection outside of the British Library), but the event was held in a special hall, far away from the stacks. The panel of judges singled out Mary Watson from South Africa for “Jungfrau,” and she got up to give a brief speech and answer questions. Many congratulations to her. You can read more about the event at the BBC.