By MICHAEL CAINES
The Savoy Hotel hosted the 20th South Bank Sky Arts Awards on Sunday night; alongside the actors, comedians, musicians and other artists honoured this time round, Sunjeev Sahota received the literature award, for his well-regarded novel The Year of the Runaways. It's a notable choice on the (anomalously anonymous) judges' part. It's very much a novel of its moment, describing the lives of Indian illegal immigrants in Sheffield, including two posing as a married couple. Yet its prose is also the least enticing of the three short-list books – all of them novels, although the award in theory covers all genres – efficient but strangely plain, despite the colourful Hindi insults.
Nothing wrong with that, perhaps. But I prefer the work of Sahota's fellow short-listed novelists, Tessa Hadley and Sarah Hall. And not only because I had the pleasure of interviewing both of them last week. . . .
I do frankly, gushingly admit that the chatting about fiction really was a pleasure – at least for me. That's because, however, I'm already an admirer of the work – in Sarah Hall's case, since I wrote a gauche review of her second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, over a decade ago.
Apart from anything else, both Hall and Hadley are writers of books that many readers seem to relish for the kinds of stories they tell – but also for the sheer cumulative power, and the distinctive textures, of their prose. Here, for example, is how Hall's nominated novel The Wolf Border conjures up a dream encounter between its protagonist Rachel and one of the beasts of its title:
"It comes between the bushes, as if bidden. It comes forward, mercilessly, towards her, paws lifting, fast, but not running. A word she will soon learn: lope. It is perfectly made: long legs, sheer chest, dressed for coldness in wraps of grey fur. It comes close to the wire and stands looking at her, eyes level, pure yellow gaze. Long nose, the black tip twitching, short mane. A dog before dogs were invented. The god of all dogs. It is a creature so fine, she can hardly comprehend it. But it recognizes her. It has seen and smelled animals like her for two million years. It stands looking. Yellow eyes, black-ringed. Its thoughts nameless. . . ."
And here is Harriet, one of the four siblings at the heart of Hadley's novel The Past, in another encounter with beautiful yet disquieting nature:
"On her way home from birdwatching Harriet crossed a tussocky field, a narrow wedge shape between two stretches of woodland, rising steeply to where it was closed in by more woods at the top. After the woods with their equivocal shade, the strong sunlight was startling when the path opened onto this gap; a red kite ambled in the sky above, small birds scuffled in the undergrowth, too hot to sing, and a pigeon broke out from the trees with a wooden clatter of wing beats. A stream ran down the field, bisecting it, conversing urgently with itself, its cleft bitten disproportionately deep into the stony ground and marked against the field’s rough grass by the tangle of brambles that grew luxuriantly all along it, profuse as fur, still showing a few late white flowers limp like damp tissue, and heavy with berries too sour and green to pick yet, humming with flies. . . . she wanted to taste it but thought that wasn’t sensible – who knew what pesticides they used on these fields? On her solitary walks she was ambushed occasionally by this fear of accidents: what if she fell, and no one knew where she was?"
I won't bang on about these two novels' other good qualities here (I've saved most of that for the friends who happen to have my copies foisted on them). I'll just note instead that our TLS Voices interview quickly gets onto a more generally curious aspect of the writing process: those moments of inspiration that can shift a story out of its intended course.
Plans change, that is, in sudden ways – The Past benefited from one that came to Hadley, in true Archimedes style, in the bath – but tend to be preceded, as she notes, by "weeks of murkiness". Novels may be "huge, sometimes planned, often times unwieldy things", Hall agrees; but "there are these great moments that occur to you that turn the direction of the book". The writer has to "embrace and cherish" these moments. (A certain well-worn line of Thomas Edison's, about perspiration and inspiration, is coming to mind.)
"A book comes in fits and jerks", John Steinbeck once observed. George Eliot and her famous deviation from the plan in Middlemarch aside, there must be many unrecorded eureka moments scattered throughout the history of the novel, propelling it on in abrupt creative bursts. Not just originary moments of inspiration, that is, but moments that upset the scheme derived from that first moment. It must be a relief to the writer who finally has one, as Sarah Hall says, after worrying weeks of "murkiness".
The South Bank Sky Arts Awards ceremony will be broadcast tomorrow night, at 8pm, on Sky Arts.