Winner of the National Book Award


Winner of the National Book Award

I don’t know what it is about Jincy Willet, but I can’t get enough. Having finished The Writing Class, I rushed back to the Library to find out what else was on offer. And found Winner of the National Book Award.

I didn’t read the  blurb, I just grabbed it on faith of the author, which is very unusual for me. Usually books have to go through rigorous testing – what does the blurb say, what’s the author done before, what does (gasp) the cover look like (oh for god’s sake, we all know we judge books by their covers!). Most important of all, is it light and will it fit in my bag, because I refuse to carry it home otherwise. If they pass all this, they might make it to the mecca of my bedside table.

Winner of the National Book Award has a boring cover. I didn’t read the blurb, so I had no idea what it was about. It’s hardback, heavy, and didn’t fit in my bag. But it’s Jincy Willet, so I had to have it.

The narrator is Dorcas, a thirty-something who works in a library. Her twin sister Abigail has just published a book, an autobiography that describes the events leading up to her murdering her husband. The narrative jumps between the events in the book, and the current Dorcas as she sits in the library reading it.

I have struggled and struggled to figure out why I think Jincy Willet is so brilliant. I think one of the reasons is that her characters are just so original. Not a cliche among them, neither will you find cliches in the relationships that exist between them. Dorcas and Abigail are twins, but share very little connection. Abigail lost her virginity to the entire football team at 14. Dorcas prides herself on always having said “no.” Much of the narrative revolves around that word no, and what the consequences are of saying or not saying it.

I think this is actually one book where I just have to say, go and read it, because nothing I can write here could do it justice.

I wanted to share this passage, which I feel captures the awkward situation of being with people from different parts of your life simultaneously. Conrad is Guy’s old college roommate, and has come back into his life many years later. He shares a dinner table with Guy and his wife, plus Dorcas and Abigail. Guy is torn between being the man he is now, and the boy he used to be with Conrad.

This, of course, was Guy’s alternate posture with his old roommate, and when he assumed it for a long period of time, which on this night he did not, he accepted the role fully, of at least appeared to, and the panicky look would disappear, and it would become possible to believe that he had been a more or less ordinary young man, who snickered and told dirty stories with the rest of them. He would realx into his old incarnation, and take some delight in it, I think. He would look younger, and not disingenuous, but really ingenuous. His language would become genuinedly offensive, even to a woman like me, who hates to take knee-jerk offence.

They would talk about women, about oneself, as though women were nothing but ambulatory body parts, the container for the thing contained, the part for the whole. They would tell repugnant jokes with horrid imagery, comparing us to carniverous plants, dead carp, snails. At such times Conrad Lowe would eventually extract from Guy some explicit hateful remark, some punchline of his own, and then he would abandon Guy, slip out from under him like a retracted gangplank. Lowe’s face would transmogrify, the contagiously filthy-minded young man would disappear, and in its place would be this bemused adult with an ironic face, staring at his old chum in mild wonder. And there would be poor Guy, the focus of shocked attention, and the echo if his own obscenity ringing in everyone’s ears like cookware spilling from a closet. It was impossible to look at him at such times, or to enjoy his horror, and we would all spend the rest of the evening pretending that nothing had happened, while Guy sat paralysed in out midst, or sometimes just rose up and left the room and went upstairs to bed.

Isn’t that brilliant? Just one from this one passage you get a sense of how vindictive Conrad is. Guy is meant to be his best friend, and still, he leads him to the edge, and waits for him to jump. Horrendous. Imagery such as “withdrawing the gangplank” perpetuates this. Conrad creates a sense of safety and solidarity with Guy, which he then yanks away at the opportune moment.

And yet, even in his cruelty, Conrad is undeniably attractive. As both Abigail and Dorcas will soon discover..

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