Every year, the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlists something that I find bafflingly bad, and this year, I’m pretty confident that prize goes to Luan Goldie’s Nightingale Point. This novel, set in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, is told principally from six different first-person perspectives, with a seventh tossed in at the very end for no good reason. Its narrators are linked by the run-down London block of flats where they live, Nightingale Point, and by the traumatic tragedy that occurs one hot summer’s afternoon when a cargo plane plows into the block. Mary is a Filipino nurse who is burdened with guilt about an affair; she is surrogate mother to two black teenage boys, Malachi and Tristan. Malachi is studious, asthmatic and heartbroken, while his younger brother Tristan is more concerned with keeping up his street cred and keeping their little flat spotless. Elvis, a white man with learning disabilities, has recently moved to the block through a care-in-the-community placement; he loves having his own place but is the target of harassment. Finally, Pamela, perhaps the most vivid, is a white teenage girl kept captive in her own flat by her controlling father; she remembers the days when she was at least let out to run in the frosty park for an hour, and wishes she could reunite with Malachi, with whom she had a brief love affair.
At almost four hundred pages, Nightingale Point, which treads slowly through a long preamble and postamble to its central incident, feels like a much shorter story stretched out to fill the space of a novel. It also has some fairly basic craft problems, which I found surprising, given that Goldie is a past Costa Short Story award winner. On a sentence-by-sentence level, it’s uninspiring but competent, although there are some occasional clangers (‘The woven burgundy throw falls from the back of the sofa to reveal the holes and poverty beneath it.’) However, the prose clumps together in uncomfortable ways, partly because the transitions between past and present, and between introspection and action, are often awkwardly handled. Here’s Pamela on the roof of the block of flats:
Her running shoes swing by her sides as she pads across the greyness in her socks. She steps over the glossy ripped pages of a magazine; a girl in a peephole leather catsuit stares back at her. The door bounces against its splintered frame as Pamela enters the building. Her world starts to shrink.
On a macro level, this novel didn’t work for me either. It’s not a sharp evocation of a London council estate along the lines of Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, but seems more akin to plodding feelgood London community-based novels like Libby Page’s The Lido, despite the fact it’s not especially feelgood! It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about either solidarity or hierarchy in the wake of this disaster, and, for a novel that claims to mirror the Grenfell tragedy, it’s curiously apolitical. (While I obviously understand that Goldie wouldn’t have wanted to tackle Grenfell directly, I wondered why she chose to pluck a real-life incident from its original social context – this plane crash into a tower block actually took place in Amsterdam in 1992, and led to a government cover-up.) Because the novel chooses to eschew all these interesting power dynamics, it becomes a somewhat soapy and manipulative read, with an especially troubling through-line for one of its central characters.
Highlight for spoiler. As is achingly predictable, poor Pamela dies in the crash because she can’t escape from her locked flat. Her story then becomes the property of the men who are grieving her. Pamela left a note for Malachi before her death breaking the news of her pregnancy that, it seems to me, she would have wanted very much for him to read even if she was dead, but Tristan, who promised to deliver the note, decides it will be better for his brother if he tears it up, and Malachi never finds out he did this (which is terrible storytelling anyway!) Then for some reason, Pamela’s abusive father, Jay, gets a surprise point-of-view chapter near the end of the novel which seems principally concerned with eliciting sympathy for him and suggesting that he and Malachi can find common ground at a memorial service five years on: ‘So much happened back then, so many things that can’t be unsaid or changed. But today isn’t about that, it’s not about Jay or Malachi, it’s about acknowledging Pamela, the sixteen-year-old girl who loved laughing and milkshakes and running till she could no longer feel her legs. The girl they both loved. They share a look, which Jay feels is not filled with violence or regret, but with understanding of what they’ve both lost.’ BUT, the reason Pamela (and her baby!) is dead is because Jay LOCKED HER IN HER FLAT, and even when she was alive she never got to enjoy running and milkshakes because Jay KEPT HER LOCKED IN HER FLAT. I know this is from Jay’s point of view, but Goldie could easily have chosen to undercut this scene when she returned to Malachi’s perspective; instead, he doesn’t comment. End spoiler. In short: what were the judges thinking?
I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number five. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.