Not As It Seems: Review of the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 at Durham Book Festival

Alistair Brown

The Gordon Burn Prize is one of the most celebrated awards on the literary landscape, bringing attention to new fiction or non-fiction that challenges readers’ expectations. Dr Alistair Brown was appropriately surprised at the ceremony during Durham Book Festival 2019.

Hattie, 93, lives on her farm in Northumberland, from where she worries about the property being sold off to foreigners, moans about immigrants and EU handouts, and complains about Brexit.

A man watches a swan, recalling an old Irish folk song about a widowed bird and faraway lochs.

A woman looks anxiously at the men around her, wondering whether they too intend to sexually abuse her.

These sentences summarise readings from three of the six shortlisted books – but this is the Gordon Burn Prize, and all is not at it seems.

Cover of Girl, Woman, OtherHattie, 93, may echo the clichés of the tabloid press, but she’s not the white, leave-voting Northumberland resident you might stereotypically expect based on the things she says and thinks. Her fear of the outsider who threatens her way of life challenges presumptions when we remember that she is actually a mixed-race woman, who happens to live in a region not known for its cultural diversity. In Girl, Woman, Other, Bernadine Evaristo captures the breadth of 12 primarily black women’s voices. She asks questions as to why some readers might be guilty of a different form of ‘othering’. Why should a non-white woman not borrow the divisive vernacularisms of the tabloid mainstream? Why do we anticipate such a character should feel out of place on a Northumberland farm, when in actuality that place might be her conventionally cherished home?

Cover of For The Good TimesThe Swan is not actually a bird, but a name given to a man playing pool in a 1970s Belfast bar in David Keenan’s For the Good Times, the eventual winner. Keenan’s speaker tumbles together vernacular facts (‘Swans mate for life son, do you realise that son?’) with what seem like cryptic ciphers from the time of the Troubles (‘The Swan’s partner was killed in action, that’s all he says to me, none of the specifics’). In the discussion following his reading, Keenan says that ‘I want to reenchant reality as it is, not to critique’. He makes an impassioned plea for the conversation of working-class Belfast to be seen as an artful form of storytelling in its own right. He sees a novel like Ulysses – the implied comparison to his own work is deliberate – not simply as a modernist novel but as a working-class one, an attempt to represent rich forms of language that have always been there, but ignored.

Cover of The Silence of the GirlsThe woman who fears abuse is not a Twitterer from the #MeToo generation, but Briseis, Trojan queen now become just one of the collective ‘Trojan whores’ in the aftermath of the sack of the city, in Pat Barker’s reimagining of the events of the Iliad from a female perspective. Barker jokes that while she was settling down to research and write about events two millennia in the past in The Silence of the Girls, the ‘me too’ movement arose and suddenly made her novel relevant. ‘Does this mean writers are performing a prophetic function?’ she laughs.

Barker is being mischievously disingenuous, of course. Writers always reflect the politics of their time, they just might take pains to conceal it, such as by setting a work in the distant past or by lending an animalistic quality to human characters. Gordon Burn’s work aimed to bring this process of concealment to the surface and to celebrate rather than hiding the political, ‘fearless…in subject and style’ as Angus Cargill, editor at Burn’s publisher, Faber, reminds at the start of the event. Whether writing about the inner lives of serial killers Fred and Rosemary West, or the celebrity of snooker stars, Burn lifted actuality and self-consciously, even provocatively, transmuted it through the trickery of fiction. In this way, Burn asks us to recognise the essential capacity of art to shed a light, from a different angle, on the facts, and to overturn our presumptions and prejudices toward the real world – something the above three readings, with their seemingly obvious but then not-so-obvious dimensions, represent.

Cover of Heads of the Colored PeopleA Burn-like ethos is shared, too, in Nafissa Thompson’s reading from her short story collection Heads of the Colored People. Telling a story about black upper-middle-class college kids, she teases her readers. We eavesdrop on conversation between black classmates, pondering the ways in which black fictional characters are traditionally read in literature classrooms. ‘This story is not about race’, she defies. Well it is, but it also isn’t – or at least shouldn’t simply be about that. Paralleling Bernadine Evaristo’s reading, Thompson warns us that in desperately looking for the political reality that characters must represent, we might forget to enjoy listening to characters as they simply exist in fiction.

Cover of This Brutal HouseMaking-up is more literally important to Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House. Following the vogue scene in New York – contemporary with the sparkling Pose – he brings back to life the silent protests that five queer ball Mothers had to enact in response to the disappearance of their lost Children. The lavish joy associated with the balls is downplayed in this representation of the ‘wasted years adhering to the official channels of complaint’ that have forced their vigil.

Cover of LannyAlso blending worlds is Lanny, set in an English village ‘an hour from London’ that is somehow saturated with myth and make believe. The character he reads through is sick, stressed, drinking not-yet-ready sloe gin. He feels that ‘the pressure between different objects in the house was all wrong’ – yet can’t quite grasp how. The spoken reading cannot convey the typographic innovations of Lanny, in which conventional horizontal lines of print are mixed with wavy layouts, as if to represent the shift between genres the novel plays with.

Experiments, whether with readers’ expectations of genre or the layout of the page, run through all the shortlisted works. Although this year’s shortlist seems more straightforwardly to contain fiction – rather than including works that could equally be categorised as non-fiction – perhaps, returning to Barker’s offhand remark, that’s a sign of our times. Arguably Burn’s masterpiece was Born Yesterday: The News As A Novel, which looked back at the year 2007 in British politics through a novelistic lens. We seem to have moved from novelists looking back on the news, to foreseeing the news as it has not yet become. The writer is prophet. The novelist is current.

The Gordon Burn Prize is a partnership between New Writing North, Durham Book Festival, the Gordon Burn Trust and Faber & Faber. Congratulations to David Keenan, the eventual winner, and to all the shortlisted books.

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