Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2019

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced! Here are my thoughts:

The Ones I’ve Read

  • Anna Burns, Milkman. I wrote more about Milkman here: in short, this Booker-winning novel, set in Belfast in the 1970s at the height of the Troubles, was intensely frustrating, but also refused to let go. It certainly deserves its place on this longlist.
  • Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, The Serial Killer. I’m a little bemused as to what this much-hyped, Nigerian-set novel is doing here. It has a great premise: Korede’s sister, Ayoola, has killed her last three boyfriends, forcing Korede to help her mop up the mess, and Ayoola has now set her sights on the man Korede fancies. However, as I wrote on Goodreads: even though they’re very different books, I had similar thoughts about this one as I had about Caroline Kepnes’s You. Is this really doing something edgy, or is it just more of the same from a flipped perspective?
  • Tayari Jones, An American Marriage. I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of what happens to African-American couple Celestial and Roy’s relationship after Roy is falsely accused of raping a white woman and sent to jail for twelve years. Jones’s writing is effortlessly readable, and I’m now working my way through her backlist. I reviewed An American Marriage here.
  • Diana Evans, Ordinary People. I’m also baffled as to how this has managed to make the longlist. I found this story of two well-off London couples struggling with parenthood and career far too familiar, and although three out of the four protagonists are black, this fails to add enough to lift the novel; neither does the half-baked supernatural plotline. I reviewed Ordinary People here.
  • Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. Moss’s latest, a creepy novella that follows teenage Silvie as her controlling father forces her to live out a facsimile of Iron Age life in Northumbria, is certainly a worthy contender for the Women’s Prize, although it wasn’t my favourite of her novels. I reviewed Ghost Wall for Shiny New Books here.

The Ones I Already Wanted to Read

  • Akwaeke Emezi, Freshwater. This came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019. It deals with a young Igbo woman, Ada, who is ‘peopled with spirits’, and it’s narrated by the different selves within her. While I admire the premise of this novel, I think it’s very unlikely I’ll enjoy it, as I find it very difficult to engage with narrators whose perception of the world is fundamentally distorted. Nevertheless, I want to give it a go.
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People. I feel like I’m the last person in the world not yet to have read Rooney’s second novel, but somebody has had my local library copy checked out for months. I think it’s now time to pay the grand sum of 50p to request a copy through the central library system… upon which point it will almost certainly be returned to my branch.
  • Yvonne Battle-Felton, Remembered. I met Yvonne briefly at a Penguin WriteNow event in Manchester in 2016, when this book was on submission to agents. The premise, which traces an elderly woman’s memories back through the history of slavery in America, sounded fantastic then, and I’m not surprised to see this doing so well.
  • Madeline Miller, Circe. I loved Miller’s The Song of Achilleswhich won the Women’s Prize in 2012, and I’m keen to read this feminist retelling of the Greek goddess Circe’s story.
  • Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive. I just finished Luiselli’s moving long essay, Tell Me How it Ends, which recounts her work as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This novel picks up on similar themes about the ‘immigration crisis’, and sounds totally intriguing.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

  • Lillian Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant. I’d read about this novel, which centres around the owner and staff of a Chinese restaurant in Maryland, on Naomi’s blog, and thought it sounded fun, but wasn’t motivated enough to add it to a TBR list until now.
  • Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. I’ve avoided Pat Barker since struggling with the first of the Regeneration trilogy back when I was a teenager, but I’ve already been convinced to try her again, and I like the sound of this feminist retelling of the Iliad.

The Ones I Just Don’t Want To Read

  • Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan SongI’d already decided that, given my total lack of interest in Truman Capote, this novel about his life wasn’t going to be for me, and the opening pages convinced me further.
  • Bernice L. McFadden, Praise Song for the Butterflies. Claire wrote a great review of this novel, set in a fictional African nation, on her blog, but it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing.
  • Melissa Broder, The Pisces. I’ve heard a lot about this novel, and was initially attracted by a brief blurb claiming that it’s about a woman who falls in love with a merman. However, when I figured out it was a sexual satire, I lost interest.
  • Sophie van Llewyn, Bottled Goods. This is the only longlisted novel I hadn’t heard of, but I’m not drawn in by the blurb, which describes it as a magic realist novel set in 1970s communist Romania. Kudos to the Women’s Prize for longlisting something from such a tiny press (Fairlight Books), however.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

I’m pretty cross about the omission of three of my favourite books from last year, Lissa Evans’s Old BaggageSamantha Harvey’s The Western Windand Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, especially given some of the titles that have been longlisted.

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On the Longlist

I didn’t get on with Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, despite having loved her short story collection, Fen, so I’m pleased not to see it here. Having tried and failed to get into Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, I’m also glad it didn’t make it. While I liked Esi Edugyan’s Washington Blackit didn’t impress me enough to make me feel it deserves to be here, and Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure has attracted too many poor reviews from bloggers I trust to make me want to try it.

What are your thoughts on the Women’s Prize longlist for 2019?

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2019

  1. I’ve read two of the same ones as you, Jones and Moss — both of which I think are particularly strong contenders — as well as a few others. There’s a copy of Ordinary People at my local library, so I think I will start there. The other title that attracts me the most is Bottled Goods, because it sounds a lot like Swallowing Mercury, a novella I really enjoyed the other year. Swan Song I barely got 20 pages into. You’d have to be very interested indeed in the historical figures and the time period, I think, since it’s nearly 500 pages long! The Pisces is one I was surprised to like so much in the end; there’s more going on than a bare summary suggests. But I can sympathize with simply not being interested in certain longlisted titles. I’m (unfairly, I’m sure) averse to all updates of Greek classics so won’t be reading the Barker or Miller.

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    • I read a review of The Pisces somewhere that really put me off it, but I can’t remember where, so I’m not articulating my antipathy to it very well! I was obsessed with retellings of Greek myths and legends as a teenager, but have rather gone off them as an adult. Still, I rate Miller as a writer and would like to give Barker another shot.

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  2. I’m not quite as sold on Jones – An American Marriage is indeed effortless to read, but it strikes me as a pretty straightforward piece of storytelling in comparison with, e.g., Ghost Wall or Milkman, both of which fold their thematic preoccupations into the atmosphere created by the books. (Does that make sense? I don’t know. It’s something I have a hard time articulating.) Quite agree that neither Transcription nor Washington Black have been unfairly snubbed – the books are fine to good, but that shouldn’t be enough. Equally bummed about the omission of Old Baggage. And I hope you enjoy Number One Chinese Restaurant!

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    • Oh no, I totally agree about Jones. I think she deserves to be on the longlist but would definitely back Burns and Moss over her. (Her debut, Leaving Atlanta, is perhaps still not quite on a Burns/Moss level, but is more interesting, in my view).

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      • PS I feel a bit bad about Transcription. I actually started reading it but all the stuff about children’s radio programmes was too close to what I research, so it felt like work!

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  3. I was delighted to see Ghost Wall on there – but am more interested to catch up on her back catalogue. I feel like one of the only people in the world to have been disappointed by Normal People but given that it has won everything else, I’m not surprised to see it on the list.

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  4. I’ve only read one of them – the Lilian Li, which I loved (review to come). Apparently, as Clare says, Atkinson’s books are no longer submitted – which explains why she isn’t on the list. There’s plenty I’d like to read on this list – I have several on the shelves already: Milkman, Swan Song, Rooney, Circe and Barker.

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  5. Has anyone yet discovered why Atkinson’s books are no longer being submitted for the prize? Seems odd to me. I read Transcription and enjoyed it, but not as much as I had Life After Life and others.

    Karen Virginia Flaxman
    notesfromthereader’snook.wordpress.com

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  6. The only one I’ve read is An American Marriage, which I really enjoyed, but I’d be surprised to see it shortlisted.
    I’ve also read the first couple chapters of The Pisces, but then decided not to continue because I had other books I was more interested in reading. And now I can’t remember any of it – which means I probably won’t ever be finishing it. (Although I could be missing something great!)

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    • Yes – I liked An American Marriage a lot but I think there are stronger books on the shortlist. I just finished The Silence of the Girls, which has rekindled my interest in Greek retellings 🙂

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