Below you can read extracts from all six books on this year's Baileys Prize shortlist (presented in alphabetical order). We would love to know what you make of them, let us know in the comments which book you would read first based on these openings (and which ones you would avoid!).
We're reading the whole shortlist in the WLTB Book Club and we would love you to read along with us as part of your book club or as an individual. Get in touch in the comments or on Twitter @welovethisbook if you are planning on reading with us. We will be posting mini reviews along the way and we would love to feature your thoughts if you're joining in.
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing, that could help organisations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.
The billionaire had been keen to give me the outline of his life story, which had begun unprepossessingly and ended – obviously – with him being the relaxed, well-heeled man who sat across the table from me today. I wondered whether in fact what he wanted now was to be a writer, with the literary magazine as his entrée. A lot of people want to be writers: there was no reason to think you couldn’t buy your way into it. This man had bought himself ￼￼￼￼￼in, and out, of a great many things. He mentioned a scheme he was working on, to eradicate lawyers from people’s personal lives. He was also developing a blueprint for a floating wind farm big enough to accommodate the entire community of people needed to service and run it: the gigantic platform could be located far out to sea, thus removing the unsightly turbines from the stretch of coast where he was hoping to pilot the proposal and where, incidentally, he owned a house. On Sundays he played drums in a rock band, just for fun. He was expecting his eleventh child, which wasn’t as bad as it sounded when you considered that he and his wife had once adopted quadruplets from Guatemala. I was finding it difficult to assimilate everything I was being told. The waitresses kept bringing more things, oysters, relishes, special wines. He was easily distracted, like a child with too many Christmas presents. But when he put me in the taxi he said, enjoy yourself in Athens, though I didn’t remember telling him that was where I was going.
On the tarmac at Heathrow the planeful of people waited silently to be taken into the air. The air hostess stood in the aisle and mimed with her props as the recording played. We were strapped into our seats, a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read. She showed us ￼￼￼￼￼the life jacket with its little pipe, the emergency exits, the oxygen mask dangling from a length of clear tubing. She led us through the possibility of death and disaster, as the priest leads the congregation through the details of purgatory and hell; and no one jumped up to escape while there was still time. Instead we listened or half-listened, thinking about other things, as though some special hardness had been bestowed on us by this coupling of formality with doom. When the recorded voice came to the part about the oxygen masks, the hush remained unbroken: no one protested, or spoke up to disagree with this commandment that one should take care of others only after taking care of oneself. Yet I wasn’t sure it was altogether true.
The Bees by Laline Paull
The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from her frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked – one wall felt weaker. She kicked out with all her strength and felt something crack and break. She forced and tore and bit until there was a jagged hole into fresher air beyond. She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into the air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.
This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker. Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.
Certain of her first task, she set about cleaning out her cell. In her violent struggle to hatch she had broken the whole front wall, unlike her neater neighbours. She looked, then followed their example, piling her debris neatly by the ruins. The activity cleared her senses and she felt the vastness of the Arrivals Hall, and how the vibrations in the air changed in different areas. Row upon row of cells like hers stretched into the distance, and there the cells were quiet but resonant as if the occupants still slept. Immediately around her was great activity with many recently broken and cleared-out cham- bers, and many more cracking and falling as new bees arrived. The differing scents of her neighbours also came into focus, some sweeter, some sharper, all of them pleas- ant to absorb.
With a hard erratic pulse in the ground, a young female came running down the corridor between the cells, her face frantic. ‘Halt!’ Harsh voices reverberated from both ends of the corridor and a strong astringent scent rose in the air. Every bee stopped moving but the young bee stumbled and fell across Flora’s pile of debris. Then she clawed her way into the remains of the broken cell and huddled in the corner, her little hands up.
Cloaked in a bitter scent which hid their faces and made them identical, the dark figures strode down the corridor towards Flora. Pushing her aside, they dragged out the weeping young bee. At the sight of their spiked gauntlets, a spasm of fear in Flora’s brain released more knowledge. They were police. ‘You fled inspection.’ One of them pulled at the girl’s wings, while another examined the four still-wet membranes. The edge of one was shrivelled. ‘Spare me,’ she cried. ‘I will not fly, I will serve in any other way—’ ‘Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted.’
Before the bee could speak the two officers pressed her head down until there was a sharp crack. She hung limp between them and they dropped her body in the corridor. ‘You.’ A peculiar rasping voice addressed Flora and she did not know which one spoke, but stared at the black hooks on the backs of their legs. ‘Hold still.’ Long black callipers slid from their gauntlets and they measured her height. ‘Excessive variation. Abnormal.’ ‘That will be all, officers.’ At the kind voice and fragrant smell, the police released Flora. They bowed to a tall and well-groomed bee with a beautiful face. ‘Sister Sage, this one is obscenely ugly.’ ‘And excessively large.’ ‘It would appear so. Thank you, officers, you may go.’ Sister Sage waited for them to leave. She smiled at Flora. ‘To fear them is good. Be still while I read your kin—’ ‘I am Flora 717.’ Sister Sage raised her antennae. ‘A sanitation worker who speaks. Most notable ...’
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
Vivian Rose Spencer was almost running now, up the mountainside, along the ancient paving stones of the Sacred Way, accompanied by an orchestra of birds, spring water, cicadas and the encounter of breeze and olive trees. The guide and donkeys were far behind, so there was no one to see her stop sharply beside a white block which had tumbled partway down the mountain centuries ago and rest her hands against its surface before bending close to touch her lips to it. Marble, grit, and a taste which made her jerk away in shock – the bones of Zeus’ sanctuary had the sweetness of fig. Either that, or a bird flying overhead might have dropped a fruit here, and the juice of it smeared against the stone. She looked down at her feet, saw a split- open fig.
– Labraunda! she called out, her voice echoing.
– Labraunda! she heard, bouncing back down the moun- tain at her. That wasn’t her voice at all. It was a man, his
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼accent both familiar and foreign. But no, she was the foreign one here. She picked up the fig, held it to her nose and closed her eyes. She never wanted to return to London again.
The reports of the nineteenth-century travellers hadn’t prepared her for this: on the terraced upper slopes of the mountain enough of the vast temple complex remained intact to allow the imagination to pick up fallen colonnades, piece together the scattered marble and stone blocks, and imagine the grandeur that once was. Here, the Carian forces fled after losing a battle against the might of Darius’ Persians; here, the architects of the Mausoleum, that wonder of the world, honed their craft; here, Alexander came to see the mighty two-headed axe of the Amazon queen held aloft by the statue of Zeus.
Viv walked slowly, trying to take it all in: the ruins, half lost in foliage; the sounds of earth being turned, tree limbs hacked, voices speaking indistinct words; the view which held, all at once, the vast sky, the plain beneath, and the Aegean Sea in the distance. She had yet to become accustomed to the light of this part of the world – brilliant without being harsh, it made her feel she’d spent her whole life with gauze over her eyes. Something small and muscled charged at her, almost knocking her down.
– Alice! she cried out, and tried to pick up the pug, but the animal bounded ahead, and Viv followed, through a maze of broken columns taller than the tallest of men, until she saw the familiar lean form of her father’s old friend Tahsin Bey crouching on the ground next to a man with sandy-blond ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼hair, pointing at something carved onto a large stone block – a serpentine shape, with a loop behind its open jaw.
–A snake, the man with sandy-blond hair said, in a German accent.
– An eel? suggested Tahsin Bey in that way he had of putting forward a certainty as though it were a theory he was asking you to consider.
– An eel? Why an eel?
It was Viv who answered, though she knew it was impo- lite to enter the conversation of men unaware of her presence.
– Because Pliny tells us that in the springs of Labraunda there are eels which wear earrings.
The two men turned to look at her, and she couldn’t stop herself from adding:
– And Aelian says there are fish wearing golden necklaces who are tamed, and answer the calls of men.
Tahsin Bey held out his hand, his smile of welcome over- riding the formality of the gesture.
– Welcome to Labraunda, Vivian Rose.
His palm was callused, and a few moments later when she raised her hand to brush some irritation out of her eye she smelt tobacco and earth overlaying fig. The richness of the scent made her linger over it until she saw the German looking at her with a knowing expression she didn’t like. Briskly, she lowered her hand and rubbed it on her skirt, all the while wondering how she would ever rest her eyes in this place with so much to see.
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.
Not says. Said.
George’s mother is dead.
What moral conundrum? George says.
The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side the driver’s seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.
Okay. You’re an artist, her mother says.
Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum?
Ha ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it.
You’re an artist.
This conversation is happening last May, when George’s mother is still alive, obviously. She’s been dead since September. Now it’s January, to be more precise it’s just past midnight on New Year’s Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George’s mother died.
George’s father is out. It is better than him being at home, standing maudlin in the kitchen or going round the house switching things off and on. Henry is asleep. She just went in and checked on him; he was dead to the world, though not as dead as the word dead literally means when it means, you know, dead.
This will be the first year her mother hasn’t been alive since the year her mother was born. That is so obvious that it is stupid even to think it and yet so terrible that you can’t not think it. Both at once.
Anyway George is spending the first minutes of the new year looking up the lyrics of an old song. Let’s Twist Again. Lyrics by Kal Mann. The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year.
Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.
Do you remember when Things were really hummin’.
Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?
Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.
At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.
I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.
That before and after thing is about mourning, is what people keep saying. They keep talking about how grief has stages. There’s some dispute about how many stages of grief there are. There are three, or five, or some people say seven.
It’s quite like the songwriter actually couldn’t be bothered to think of words. Maybe he was in one of the three, five or seven stages of mourning too. Stage nine (or twenty three or a hundred and twenty three or ad infinitum, because nothing will ever not be like this again): in this stage you will no longer be bothered with whether songwords mean anything. In fact you will hate almost all songs.
But George has to find a song to which you can do this specific dance.
It being so apparently contradictory and meaningless is no doubt a bonus. It will be precisely why the song sold so many copies and was such a big deal at the time. People like things not to be too meaningful.
Okay, I’m imagining, George in the passenger seat last May in Italy says at exactly the same time as George at home in England the following January stares at the meaninglessness of the words of an old song. Outside the car window Italy unfurls round and over them so hot and yellow it looks like it’s been sandblasted. In the back Henry snuffles lightly, his eyes closed, his mouth open. The band of the seatbelt is over his forehead because he is so small.
You’re an artist, her mother says, and you’re working on a project with a lot of other artists. And everybody on the project is getting the same amount, salary-wise. But you believe that what you’re doing is worth more than everyone on the project, including you, is getting paid. So you write a letter to the man who’s commissioned the work and you ask him to give you more money than everyone else is getting.
Am I worth more? George says. Am I better than the other artists?
Does that matter? her mother says. Is that what matters?
Is it me or is it the work that’s worth more? George says.
Good. Keep going, her mother says.
Is this real? George says. Is it hypothetical? Does that matter? her mother says.
Is this something that already has an answer in reality but you’re testing me with the concept of it though you already know perfectly well what you yourself think about it? George says.
Maybe, her mother says. But I’m not interested in what I think. I’m interested in what you think.
You’re not usually interested in anything I think, George says.
That’s so adolescent of you, George, her mother says.
I am adolescent, George says.
Well, yes. That explains that, then, her mother says.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
So Denny came home. The first time, he came alone. Abby was disappointed that he didn’t bring Susan, but Red said he was glad. “It makes this visit different from those last ones,” he said. “Like he’s getting squared away with us first. He’s not taking it for granted that he can just pick up where he left off.”
He had a point. Denny did seem different— more cautious, more considerate of their feelings. He commented on little improvements around the house. He said he liked Abby’s new hairstyle. (She had started wearing it short.) He himself had lost the boyish sharpness along his jaw, and he had a more settled way of walking. When Abby asked him questions— though she tried her best to ration them— he made an effort to answer. He wasn’t what you’d call chatty, but he answered. Susan was doing great, he said. She was attending preschool now. Yes, he could bring her to visit. Carla was fine too, although they were not together anymore. Work? Well, at the moment he was working for a construction firm.
“Construction!” Abby said. “Hear that, Red? He’s working in construction!” Red merely grunted. He didn’t look as happy about this as he might have.
Notice all that was missing, though, from what Denny had told them. How much did he really have to do with his daughter? And a spool of blue thread when he said he and Carla were “not together,” did he mean they were divorced? Just what were his living arrangements? Was construction his chosen career now? Had he given up on college?
Then Jeannie came over with little Deb, and Red and Abby left them alone, and by the end of her visit they knew more. He had a lot to do with Susan, Jeannie reported; he was very much involved in her life. Divorce was too expensive, for now. He shared half a house with two other guys but they were starting to get on his nerves. Sure, he would finish college. Someday.
But still, somehow, it wasn’t enough information. Oh, always there seemed to be something else— something that surely, if they could ferret it out, would at last explain him. He stayed a day and a half, that time. Then he left, but— here was the important part— they did have his cell phone number. That number they’d dialed was his cell phone number! This changed everything. They allowed a strategic lapse of several weeks, and then Abby called him (Red hovering in the background) and invited him to bring Susan for Christmas. Denny said Carla would never allow Susan to be away on Christmas Day, but maybe after Christmas he’d bring her. Red and Abby knew all about his maybes. But he did it. He brought her. Christmas fell on a Tuesday that year, and he brought her down Wednesday and they stayed through Friday. Susan was a self- possessed four- year- old with a mass of brown curls and very large, very brown eyes. The eyes were a bit of a shock. Those were not Whitshank eyes! Nor were her clothes the rough-and-tumble play clothes that the Whitshank children wore. She arrived in a red velvet dress, with white tights and red Mary Janes. Well, perhaps on account of Christmas. But the next morning, when she came down to breakfast, she wore a ruffled white blouse and a red plaid taffeta pinafore very nearly as fancy. Jeannie said it made her kind of sad to think of Denny having to button all those tiny white buttons down the back of Susan’s pinafore.
“Do you remember us?” they asked her. “Do you remember coming to visit us when you were just a baby?”
Susan said, slowly, “I think so,” which of course could not be true. But it was nice of her to pretend. She said, “Did you have a different dog?” “No, this is the same one.” “I thought you had a yellow dog,” she said, and they traded unhappy glances. Who was it she was thinking of who had a yellow dog, and perhaps one not so slobbery and arthritic as old Clarence? She was entranced with her cousins. (Aha! They could be the Whitshanks’ bait: fairy child Elise and rowdy little Deb.) She seemed unfamiliar with card games but soon developed a passion for Go Fish. Also, it emerged that she knew how to read. They were sur-prised that Carla could have reared a precocious child, but maybe that was thanks to Denny. She liked to snuggle next to Abby and sound out the words to Hop on Pop, heaving a loud sigh of satisfaction whenever she finished a page.
By the time she left, she’d lost all her reserve. She stood in front of the train station holding Denny’s hand, waving like a maniac and shouting, “Bye- bye! See you! See everybody soon! Bye- bye!” So Denny brought her again, and then again. She had her own room now, the one that used to be the girls’ room. She drank her cocoa from a mug reading susan, and when it was time to set the table she knew where to find the alphabet plate that Denny had once used. And he, meanwhile, sat back and watched all this benignly. He was the most accommodating father. It seemed she had smoothed his edges down.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
The Barbers had said they would arrive by three. It was like waiting to begin a journey, Frances thought. She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax. At half past two she had gone wistfully over the rooms for what she’d supposed was the final time; after that there had been a nerving up, giving way to a steady deflation, and now, at almost five, here she was again, listening to the echo of her own footsteps, feeling no sort of fondness for the sparsely furnished spaces, impatient simply for the couple to arrive, move in, get it over with.
She stood at a window in the largest of the rooms—the room which, until recently, had been her mother’s bedroom, but was now to be the Barbers’ sitting-room—and stared out at the street. The afternoon was bright but powdery. Flurries of wind sent up puffs of dust from the pavement and the road. The grand houses opposite had a Sunday blankness to them—but then, they had that every day of the week. Around the corner there was a large hotel, and motor-cars and taxi-cabs occasionally came this way to and from it; sometimes people strolled up here as if to take the air. But Champion Hill, on the whole, kept itself to itself. The gardens were large, the trees leafy. You would never know, she thought, that grubby Camberwell was just down there. You’d never guess that a mile or two further north lay London, life, glamour, all that.
The sound of a vehicle made her turn her head. A tradesman’s van was approaching the house. This couldn’t be them, could it? She’d expected a carrier’s cart, or even for the couple to arrive on foot—but, yes, the van was pulling up at the kerb, with a terrific creak of its brake, and now she could see the faces in its cabin, dipped and gazing up at hers: the driver’s and Mr Barber’s, with Mrs Barber’s in between. Feeling trapped and on display in the frame of the window, she lifted her hand, and smiled.
This is it, then, she said to herself, with the smile still in place.
It wasn’t like beginning a journey, after all; it was like ending one and not wanting to get out of the train. She pushed away from the window and went downstairs, calling as brightly as she could from the hall into the drawing-room, ‘They’ve arrived, Mother!’