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Guardian first book award shortlist 2015

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American coasts and suburbias, sibling rivalry in Nigeria, sculpting muscular poetry, Putin as Simon Cowell, a father, a son and a crow ... Extracts and introductions from all the shortlisted authors

Extract
Linda swaddled her newborn Beatrice in the butter-yellow blanket the neighborhood women had knitted, and joined her husband in the car. They drove from the hospital, smiling at the baby and each other. They turned onto their street and smiled at their house, which they’d had restored and painted a color they believed would make all the difference in raising their family. Then their smiles vanished.

The man was already in the yard.
They pulled into the driveway, and the man skulked behind the maple. When he saw that they’d seen him, he stepped out from behind it. He loped back and forth.
Linda hugged Beatrice close, let her husband do the job of slamming the car doors, shouting, staring the man down. She felt helpless, and so she scurried quickly to the house, knowing that her husband’s attempts to be menacing would fail.
Inside, she watched the man in the yard watch the house. She knew it wouldn’t be long before he got inside. He always did.
And so Linda never left the house unless she had to. She locked up after her husband went to work. She installed bars over the windows. In the nursery she stood behind the curtains while Beatrice slept, and she watched the man. When she took out the garbage, she clutched her baby to her chest and locked eyes with the man as she stumbled past with the leaking bag. But all it would take was a brief moment; she knew that. If she spent too long looking for something in the fridge. If she sliced her finger cutting carrots and grimaced in pain. If she fell asleep while Beatrice napped. It would be some small thing.
Then one day a package was delivered. Linda signed for it carelessly, looking instead at the man in the yard. Inside the house, she drew out a knife to slice the box tape, and noticed the package wasn’t addressed to her. It wasn’t even for someone on the block. The deliveryman had given her a stranger’s package. He was already down the driveway in his truck.
Wait, she called, running to stop him before he pulled away.
He jumped from the truck to meet her, and something about his quickness made her suddenly remember the man in her yard. How easily her mind had let go of that burden. Some dumb box was all it took. She dropped it, ran into her house screaming. But it was too late. The man had come and gone, and he had taken Beatrice with him.

Extract
She was still speaking when Father started his Peugeot 504. At the sound of it, Obembe and I hurried from our room, but Father was already driving out of the gate. He was gone.
Whenever I think of our story, how that morning would mark the last time we’d live together, all of us, as the family we’d always been, I begin – even these two decades later – to wish he hadn’t left, that he had never received that transfer letter. Before that letter came, everything was in place: Father went to work every morning and Mother, who ran a fresh food store in the open market, tended to my five siblings and me who, like the children of most families in Akure, went to school. Everything followed its natural course. We gave little thought to past events. Time meant nothing back then. The days came with clouds hanging in the sky filled with cupfuls of dust in the dry seasons, and the sun lasting into the night. It was as if a hand drew hazy pictures in the sky during the rainy seasons, when rain fell in deluges pulsating with spasms of thunderstorms for six uninterrupted months. Because things followed this known and structured pattern, no day was worthy of remembrance. All that mattered was the present and the foreseeable future. Glimpses of it mostly came like a locomotive train treading tracks of hope, with black coal in its heart and a loud elephantine toot. Sometimes these glimpses came through dreams or flights of fanciful thoughts that whispered in your head – I will be a pilot, or the president of Nigeria, rich man, own helicopters – for the future was what we made of it. It was a blank canvas on which anything could be imagined. But Father’s move to Yola changed the equation of things: time and seasons and the past began to matter, and we started to yearn and crave for it even more than the present and the future.

Extract: A City Living in Fast-Forward
Flying in at night over Moscow you can see how the shape of the city is a series of concentric ring roads with the small ring of the Kremlin at the centre. At the end of the 20th century the light from the rings glowed a dim, dirty yellow. Moscow was a sad satellite at the edge of Europe, emitting the dying embers of the Soviet empire. Then, in the 21st century, something happened: money. Never had so much money flowed into so small a place in so short a time. The orbital system shifted. Up above the city the concentric rings began to shine with the lights of new skyscrapers, neon, and speeding Maybachs on the roads, swirling faster and faster in high-pitched, hypnotic fairground brilliance. The Russians were the new jet set: the richest, the most energetic, the most dangerous. They had the most oil, the most beautiful women, the best parties. From being ready to sell anything, they became ready to buy anything: football clubs in London and basketball clubs in New York; art collections, British newspapers and European energy companies. No one could understand them. They were both lewd and refined, cunning and naive. Only in Moscow did they make sense, a city living in fast-forward, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, where boys become billionaires in the blink of an eye.
“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold-diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian president. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the president’s vizier would call “the heights of creation”. It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march towards what the president’s vizier would call “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all”.

Extract
CROW
Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins,
singing the hymns.
I lost a wife once, and once is as many times as a
crow can lose a wife. Ooh, stab it. Just remembered
something.
He flew a genuflection Tintagel–Carlyle cross
Morecambe–Orford, wonky, trying to poison
himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches,
but England’s litter saved him. Ley lines flung him
cross-country with no time for grief, power cables
catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black bone and
feather and other crows rained down from the sky,
a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath, but
our crow picked and nibbled at Lilt cans and salted
Durex and B&H, and the fire storm passed over his
head, as written history over the worker. Blackberry,
redcurrant, loganberry, sloe. Damson, plum-pear,
crab-apple, bruises. Clots, phlegm, tumours and
quince.
He looks in a puddle of oil and sees his beak is
brightly coloured, striped red, green, purple and
orange. Like a fucking puffin.
He opens his mouth to scream and beautiful English
melody comes out, garden-song, like a blackbird or
Ivor blooming Gurney.
This is another one of Crow’s bad dreams.

“Choke”
isn’t this how the best of it should be?
taking the body to the point at which
it almost breaks and then returning
having had your faith restored
in the miraculous fragility
of the self
the night I almost ended us
it was your sobbing brought me back
we talked ourselves together
and the next day still wearing your hand
around my neck I found I was struggling
to swallow every mouthful
was a labour I became aware
of the mechanics of my own body
could feel parts of myself that would
usually go unnoticed
after your hand had been on my throat
I learnt the pleasure in possessing
capacities that are never
quite fulfilled almost being broken
almost leaving but deciding
to tough it out

Extract
When news of the murder breaks I’m in Matthew’s, buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the house, but we found a dollar and sixty-three cents in change, and decided free crabs would get us the most food for that money. Usually we use bacon rinds for bait, but we’ve eaten those already.
I’m squatting down looking at the boxes of cupcakes on a bottom shelf when a woman steps over me to get to the register. Matthew’s is small and the shelves are crowded in; when Mama brought us with her to get food Renee and me would have contests to see who could get from the front door to the grimy meat counter at the back in the fewest hops – I could do it in seven. She’s a big fat woman, with more of an equator than a waist; she steps heavy, all of her trembling as she does, and for a moment I’m worried she’s going to fall and squish me. She dumps a dozen cans of pork and beans on the belt and gets out her food stamps, then digs down the front of her stretched-out red shirt and pulls a wrinkled ten-dollar bill out of her bra to pay for a pack of menthols. “Hear what happened to Cabel Bloxom?” she asks the cashier. The cashier hasn’t. “They found him waist deep in the mud in Muttonhunk Creek, had his face shot to pieces and all swole up with being in the water. His girlfriend had to identify him by the tattoo on his back.” The cashier’s eyebrows jump up, and her eyes get big. I keep rummaging among the cupcakes. The cashier can see me, but they’ll probably keep talking anyway; being thirteen doesn’t get me noticed any more than being twelve did. My necks are starting to drip blood and chicken ooze through their newspaper onto my leg.
“They know who done it?” the cashier asks as she picks up the limp bill and unlocks the glass-front tobacco case.
“Not yet. Police say they used a slug-loaded shotgun. They couldn’t find no cartridges, though.”
“That’s a lot of help – everyone around here has one of those,” the cashier answers, and she’s right. We’ve even got one, sitting next to the .22 by the porch door, in case deer show up in the yard.
“And that ain’t even the half of it.” The lady leans in close, but her whisper is almost as loud as her talking voice. “They done cut his thang clean off!”
“Guess he won’t be needing it anymore.”

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