Ahead of the announcement of 2022’s Bath Novel Award we proudly present the opening extracts from the six shortlisted novels
Until she disappeared only a few of Iman Haq’s neighbours had known her name. Now, along with most of the world, they all know every juicy detail about her.
Not that Iman is shy. For three years prior to her disappearance, she has curated snapshots of her life on Instagram. Beginning with a photograph sof the moment, re-enacted for the lens, that her boyfriend became her fiancé and ending, or so it seems, with one of fireworks in the park behind their home in a leafy part of north London. That tangerine explosion against an inky sky is perceived by some as a poignant farewell and by others as a mere coincidence. In between those two, there are thousands of posts cataloguing happy, chaotic or comical aspects of her days. A highlights reel for a continuous movie that has gained the make-up artist and new mum nearly 400,000 followers and partnerships with various brands. It is her undeniable charm and the sense of community that she creates through her frequent and seemingly frank posts that cultivates loyalty in her followers and jealousy in her trolls.
AS SOFT AS DREAMS
A town in Worcestershire
He comes running across the fields in the early light. Eliza would know him anywhere, a smudge against the green through the diamond panes. She is up at once, legs carrying her towards the front door. Francis rests a hand against the doorframe, swallowing hard, words thick and unsteady: ‘It’s Arthur again.’
She turns, quick as a hare, feet slipping on stone. The rising sun casts strips of light amongst the shadows as she darts through the house, past the great hall and the parlour, through the kitchen and into the still room, with its smell of rosemary and lavender and thyme. She shouts for Ma, and together they rummage the shelves to the clatter of pottery, searching for the herbs, the tinctures, the something, the anything that could save a child’s life.
THE LAST GIFT OF EMMELINE DAVIES
On the first day of his retirement, George’s wife had a stroke. It was December 27th, a day that even she didn’t work, and he was making tea for them both when it happened. As he pushed open the bedroom door, she seemed to be sleeping, an unusual turn of events but one that filled him with joy on this first of many new, different days. Perhaps, for once, she was going to sit for a bit while they drank their tea, instead of disappearing off to do something. Perhaps it was a surprise for him, to share this newness, if only for a little while.
He allowed himself a smile as he put the tray by the bed. Two cups of tea, the last of the mince pies. Her back was turned to him, her T-shirt, as ever from some conference or other, just visible. This one, he remembered, was from a place she had been every year that they had been together, a place he had never been.
THE TASTE OF STRAWBERRIES
This is her favourite chair; the green-flocked, high-backed one by the window. She gets annoyed if any of the others sit in it and likes to think of it as her own. It affords a good view of the gardens, which are adequately tended by the staff and she can watch the general comings and goings of the street. She casts a glance around the day room. A woman, who she believes is called May, sits with her legs wide apart, head lolling in sleep, with a look of child-like concentration on her face.
She would like to drink her tea, which is cooling; a milky film forming on its surface, but that careless girl has left it just out of arm’s reach. Crossing her legs at the ankle, she brushes an invisible speck from her dress and leans her head against the nook of the chair. The roses could do with a prune. She wishes they wouldn’t plant pink with yellow. It’s a tawdry mix. She always preferred wild flowers that knew when to come in the right order; violets and primroses giving way to the triumphant gold of daffodils and then bluebells; their honeyed scent of a morning. She can remember Alice picking cowslips from the verge, back when they grew like weeds.
The Devil in the Wildwood
As the raven flies south from London a swathe of dense, green-gold forest rears up like a ship’s prow above a squally ocean. It is a patch of the ancient woodland that once cloaked the valley below. The wildwood.
The raven has nested here among the towering oaks and hornbeams all his life. He has ventured abroad recently to that dark labyrinth on the horizon, but the stench of the Thames kept him fastidiously pecking at his feathers. Today he flew up like one more wisp of smoke from the city, his nest a lodestone to his heart.
At last he soars on an updraft towards the wildwood. He floats for a moment above the canopy that has burst into leaf in his absence, the sun pooling like oil on his blue-black wings, then circles down to a ruined, soot-blackened wall deep in the trees. He surveys the woodland floor, then hops down, an elegant gentleman, hands tucked behind his back, dipping and bowing in obeisance to the sacred ground of his ancestral home. Dog violet and wood anemone fill the glades, the smell of snowy wild garlic the air, the early bluebells a shivering sea.
But something has changed.
A sign has been nailed up, puncturing the flank of a living tree. Scratched into it are black characters like raven claws:
HIGH LEVEL LINE WORKS, Metropolitan Railway Division. Trespassers will be prosecuted.
WE ARE WOLVES
I’d hear music coming from the house. A piano. It would carry over the dunes, and if I was out there, I’d stop and listen. It fitted somehow: the wind, the waves, and the music all together.
It was never enough for me.
19th April 2000
We were, I think, seventeen.
We sit in the dark, up on the top.
“Those people they buried here,” I tell her, “they are all hidden near the beach.”
She rattles the long marram grass with her fingertips and tries to spook me. “Not all,” she says. “Not Jacob Anderson.”
The Bath Novel Award 2022 will be announced at 10:00 BST on September 21st 2022