The Bailey’s Book Prize: The Portable Veblen

Content note: This blog discusses physical and verbal abuse of disabled people featured in the book.

As usual plot spoilers are within .

Did you know that squirrels not only remember what order they bury their food caches, but can also remember what they’ve buried and also its use by date. That’s right, squirrels are amazing. People are often split between squirrels, seeing them as “rats with a fluffy tail” in cities, despite them often being one of the few wild animals that city children see on a regular basis. I’m particularly fond of them, especially the cheeky dumpy ones in London parks who sidle up to you to see if you have any food and whether you will share it. I loved watching them hang upside down from branches in my grandmother’s garden, pilfering tasty treats from the bird feeders. I love the tufty eared red ones that live in scented forests near home, filled with the energy of Squirrel Nutkin.

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Basically, I really like squirrels, and so I was excited to read a novel so… so… squirrelly. The Portable Veblen was my sixth read Bailey’s Prize book, so this blog is a little late! But it still remains one of my favourites so far.

Veblen (named after famous philosopher Thorstein Veblen) is a young, scatty woman, who translates Norwegian as a hobby and talks to squirrels. At first I was a little worried she was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but fear not past me (and future you), she is so much more. Veblen is strong but also fragile; she grew up with an overbearing mother and an emotionally distant father, both of whom have mental health problems that leave an imprint on Veblen. She tries hard, she sees good, she works against all odds for the happiness of others. She talks about anti-capitalism, consumerism, values beyond the American Dream.

Ultimately her story is about agreeing to marry her boyfriend, and trying to bring the strands of her family together. It sounds simplistic, but it is rich with insight on mental health, the meaning of family and how to be your own person under the weight of both of those. I found her very compelling as a character, and her quirks felt real. Her willingness to talk to squirrels begins as a childish retreat, but soon becomes a sign of something more troubling, like her habit of biting herself when under stress.

And then we have Paul, her partner. For context, I almost threw my book off a train because I hate him so much (Elizabeth McKenzie and the Bailey’s Prize comms team implored me not to, and my love of Veblen kept it in my hand). Paul is a neurologist developing a tool to stop brain injuries in combat situations, and rapidly becomes the interest of a pharmaceutical corporation. His aim is honourable and professionally he stands for what is good and right.

But, there is a big problem with Paul, and that’s his relationship with his brother. Like Veblen, Paul has a complicated relationship with his family, rebels against them like a teenage boy, very much all about Paul. Paul has a disabled brother, the name of his disability ultimately kept vague, but possibly a form of intellectual disability with compulsion issues. Paul and Justin fight like brothers, but also Paul physically and verbally abuses his brother. Paul repeatedly denies his brother agency, talks over his brother and not to him, ignores the love that Justin has for him. I find this to be the biggest problem in the novel, in that it instantly made me root for Veblen to throw Paul into a deep ravine. His ableism isn’t massively challenged and ultimately he and Veblen do get married, and so I felt he was rewarded for his professional good deeds by “getting the girl”.  I don’t think that being disabled is the reason why I find this so abhorrent, but the idea of someone hurting me when I’m at my most vulnerable is a fear that holds true. Also in the climate of the UK where disabled people are currently experiencing the government’s attempted financial genocide through the cutting of all benefits, it really felt painful.

I did really enjoy this book, but almost exclusively because of Veblen (and bad stuff happening to Paul, the big wazzock). On reflection I’m still frustrated by the ending for the way Justin is treated and still want to drop something heavy onto Paul. Despite that, I still really enjoyed the story and Elizabeth McKenzie’s writing. I am very much looking forward to reading more by her in the future, especially if the theme of having almost every language’s words for a particular animal continues!

Why should it win?

With The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie delicately weaves a funny and touching novel about mental health, philosophy, finding out who we are and learning how to love other people. Also, squirrels rock.

Interested? Get it here.

What to read next:

Thank you to Harper Collins for sharing this copy with me.

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