Tag Archives: Lucy Burns
Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist: Larger than an Orange by Lucy Burns
Looking back, being on the 2017 shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was still one of the best things I’ve achieved in my time as a book blogger. Each year I eagerly look out for this award’s shortlist to see how many titles I’ve read and who I think the judges will choose as the winner. For a couple years the prize has had a higher cash fund thanks to sponsorship from the Charlotte Aitken Trust, and is now, like the McKitterick Prize that I’ve judged the past two years, administered by the Society of Authors.
This year’s four nominees include two novels and two nonfiction works: Oxblood by Tom Benn is said to be a “poignantly rendered exploration of domesticity and violence” and Maddie Mortimer’s Maps of our Spectacular Bodies, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize and was longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a “lyrical and captivating look at mortality, desire and forgiveness”; Lucy Burns’s debut memoir is an examination of abortion through the prism of her personal experience; and Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite (winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction) is a biography of John Donne.
I was intrigued by the premise (narration by a young woman – and her cancer) of the Mortimer when it was longlisted for the Booker so bought a sale copy with a Christmas voucher, but the style and over-400-page length has been defeating me. I might try again, but for a debut author’s experimental work I think 200 pages would have been sufficient. I’m not keen to try the Benn, but would gladly read the Rundell from the library another time. The final book is one I requested as a review copy.
Larger Than an Orange by Lucy Burns (2021)
I’ve only read one other memoir of an abortion (as opposed to a memoir in which an abortion is simply one event of many), Happening by Annie Ernaux, so it was perhaps inevitable for me to get similar vibes from the two works. Both are fragmentary, spare; matter of fact in tone to avoid melodramatic extremes of emotion. The difference, of course, is that in the 1960s abortion was illegal in France and so ending a pregnancy required clandestine action. However, even in 2017, when the then 26-year-old Burns had a medical abortion in England, where it had been legal for 50 years, she found that the process was invasive and officious. She presents the experience as infantilizing – not trusting the patient, and lacking in compassion. And although it was the only practical choice for her at the time and she remains firmly committed to women’s right to an abortion, it sparked feelings of guilt, shame and depression that lingered and affected her work and personal life. At counselling appointments she expressed disgust at herself, and she became obsessed with looking up American pro-life propaganda and testimonials from former abortion clinic workers online.
The book is, collage-like, assembled from pieces – sometimes as little as one paragraph or one line to a page – of dated autobiographical material, going back and forth between the summer of the abortion and the few-year aftermath as she suffers with irregular bleeding, chooses a new contraceptive method and has a short-term relationship; transcripts of radio debates; alphabetical lists of predicted search terms and so on. She even requests her medical records, including sections from it plus ultrasound images, and marks her baby’s would-be birthday.
I could imagine this working very well as a play for voices, especially because Burns is in the habit of counting each person she tells about the abortion and referring to them by their number until, at fifty-something, she gives up. Friends, receptionists, the people at work who adjudicate her petition to be granted two weeks’ leave: there are those she tells willingly and those she feels duty-bound to inform to explain her health or behaviour. Some remain a part of her life and others, awkward or judgemental, fade out of it.
This is a powerful read I can’t say I necessarily enjoyed, but did admire for its uncompromising clarity and honesty, and its willingness to probe both sides of ethical issues in a way that ‘good feminists’ might think they cannot.
With thanks to FMcM Associates and Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow we’ll hear the Young Writer of the Year results. My feeling is that Katherine Rundell, though already a prize winner for this book and an established author due to her children’s oeuvre, will win for Super-Infinite.
Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?