Work Like Any Other: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Virginia Reeves

Work Like Any Other: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize
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Work Like Any Other: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

Virginia Reeves

Placing itself perfectly alongside acclaimed work by Philipp Meyer, Jane Smiley and J M Coetzee, this debut novel charts the story of Roscoe T Martin in rural Alabama in the 1920s.

Roscoe has set his sights on a new type of power spreading at the start of the 20th century: electricity. It becomes his training, his life’s work. But when his wife Marie inherits her father’s failing farm, Roscoe has to give it up, with great cost to his pride and sense of self, his marriage and his family. Realising that he might lose them all, he uses his skills as an electrician to siphon energy from the state, ushering in a period of bounty and happiness on a farm recently falling to ruin. Even the love of Marie and their son seems back within Roscoe’s grasp. Then everything changes. A young man is electrocuted on their land. Roscoe is arrested for manslaughter and - no longer an electrician or even a farmer - he must now carve out a place in a violent new world.

Review

Virginia Reeves has written an extremely affecting debut novel set during the age of electrification in 1920s Alabama. It’s the kind of story that will stay with you long after you start reading the next book in your stack, and the next, and the next.

Roscoe T. Martin is fascinated by electricity, and is so convinced of its potential to transform the farm that he works with his wife, Marie, that he decides to run some wires off the main supply to electrify their property. This move is illegal, of course, so when an electricity company inspector discovers his work and is electrocuted, Roscoe is arrested and sent to prison along with the farm worker who helped him erect the poles, Wilson.

Marie is so horrified by these events that she retreats from their marriage, preferring to absent herself from a relationship with the convicted killer than find forgiveness. In this way, Reeves gently focuses the reader on the complex moral questions surrounding possession, ownership, theft, intention and guilt, and the ways in which race, gender, class and power impact on the lived experience of these matters.

The story unfolds in chapters that alternate between life on the farm and life in the prison. The writing is beautifully crisp, and heartrendingly mournful at times. The small vignettes that pepper the narrative continue to occupy my imagination: a day in the kitchen where women can peaches in the oppressive summer humidity; a guard dog giving birth to a litter in a hole she’s dug under a shed to protect the pups; the reality of manual labour on the farm, so ordinary, so tough; the mustiness of the prison library, its categorisation and order an antidote to the prison yard. Work Like Any Other is a powerful book full of longing, misunderstanding, and stubborn and unrealised potential. It’s a first class debut from a writer whose future work I cannot wait to read.


Alison Huber is Readings’ Head Book Buyer.

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