Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #4: Remembered & Bottled Goods

Onwards! This is the last pair of Women’s Prize reviews I’ll be able to fit in before the shortlist is announced on 29th April (I still haven’t been able to read Normal People, so it had BETTER be shortlisted just saying). I’ll be posting my own wishlist before then, probably this weekend.

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Yvonne Battle Felton’s debut, Remembered, operates a dual timeline. In Philadelphia in 1910, Spring is sitting by the bedside of her injured son, Edward, who has been charged with deliberately driving a streetcar into a department store. As Spring tells him the story of his grandmothers and mothers, we jump back in time to antebellum America and the experience of being enslaved. There’s also a familiar ghostly element to the story, as Spring’s dead sister, Tempe, sits beside her and comments on the tale she’s telling, occasionally summoning visions to give us glimpses of scenes Spring wasn’t privy to, such as the plan that led up to Edward’s protest (I’m afraid this device felt less magical to me and more a rather clumsy way of adding an additional point of view). In this, Remembered most obviously recalls Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Singwhich was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize and also dealt with the legacy of slavery, as well as Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved.

I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Elle’s blog about the recent popularity of novels that explore the experiences of enslaved people, whether that’s in a C19th/C20th American context, as with the examples above, or focusing on the C18th/C19th transatlantic slave trade, such as Esi Eduygan’s Washington BlackAndrea Levy’s The Long Song, Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money (the latter is also the only recent example I can think of written by a white person). Most obviously, this trend is well overdue, and it also makes perfect sense that in the wake of movements such as Black Lives Matter, black writers are being drawn to explore the structural roots of modern racism. I also recognise that while Battle-Felton was writing this novel, the willingness of publishers to suddenly foreground narratives of slavery was hardly something she could have predicted. Yet, having said all this, it’s still the case that Remembered addresses a story that’s becoming familiar, and I’m not sure what it brings to the table. As I commented in my review of Rachel Seiffert’s The Boy in Winterlonglisted for last year’s Women’s Prize, which deals with the round-up of Jews in the Ukraine in 1941 by the SS; there has to be a compelling reason to rehearse these traumatic histories, especially when black writers and readers have emphasised that they don’t just want to see stories about slavery and black suffering.

And sadly, I didn’t feel that Battle-Felton’s writing was up to this task. There are two compelling ideas at the heart of Remembered. First, the streetcar incident as a deliberate act of resistance to racial discrimination, and second, the plantation where Spring and Tempe grow up, which is said to be cursed; no live babies can be born there, and it turns out that the enslaved women are deliberately taking contraceptive measures. Both these plots foreground the agency of black people long before the inception of the civil rights movement. However, both are strangely under-explored. This, I think, comes down to the nuts and bolts of Battle-Felton’s prose; point-of-view switches are not handled well, it’s really difficult to get a sense of time passing, and some key incidents in the novel are just confusing. This becomes particularly problematic in an especially brutal scene near the beginning of the narrative; this scene is, deliberately, horrific, but because of the weak writing, it tips over into what feels like exploitative melodrama. While I admire Battle-Felton’s intentions, this is not a strong entry on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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A shorter review for a very short novel. Bottled Goods, which is also a debut, has been described as a ‘novella-in-flash’; the novel is divided into very short sections that make big chronological jumps, and also plays with format; one section is a table, another is solely dialogue, some are in first person, others in third. Set in communist Romania in the 1970s, the novella focuses on primary school teacher Alina, who falls under suspicion after her brother-in-law defects to the west and she fails to report a pupil caught with a copy of a subversive magazine. There’s a touch of magical realism, but Sophie van Llewyn holds it in the right balance, making Bottled Goods intriguing but grounded. Nevertheless, despite the strength of van Llewyn’s writing, this isn’t one of my favoured contenders for the shortlist either, although I’m glad that I ultimately decided to read it. I’m not convinced that a series of interlinked flash fiction pieces works in the same way an interlinked collection of short stories can; the strength of flash is its ability to conjure a world in very few words, and as these stories don’t need to do that, because character and situation have already been established, they can feel needlessly short. A number of individual pieces are very arresting, but not all of the pieces attain this standard. Overall, I was left feeling that this novella was simply too slight to make enough of an impression. I hope van Llewyn writes something else soon, however, because she’s clearly an original and skilled writer.

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10 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #4: Remembered & Bottled Goods

  1. I haven’t yet read Remembered, but I do think that sheer skill is really important when writing about traumatic incidents. I go back and forth on this in some ways because I also think that writers get to write whatever and however they please, but (without having read Battle-Felton’s prose) it sort of sounds as though the problem isn’t with readers not being willing to extend their sympathies to reading about trauma, but with the author either making deliberate choices that end up undermining her vision, or not being technically strong enough to carry that vision off.

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    • I completely agree – I do think that writers take on a particular set of challenges when writing about trauma, and need to make sure that they deal with it appropriately. This doesn’t mean that there’s any subject that is ‘off-limits’ to writers, obviously. & you may feel differently about Battle-Felton’s writing than I do!

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  2. I loved Bottled Goods — just popped in to read your review after writing mine. I’m surprised at how divisive it’s been (a rare negative review from Lonesome Reader, for instance). I think it does work as linked short stories; taken individually, not many of the pieces, bar perhaps the lists and letters, would have particularly struck me. But I loved the mixture of formats, and tones. It would be on my personal shortlist, but I doubt will make the official one, alas.

    You’ve confirmed that I made the right decision in abandoning Remembered early on. Nothing about it felt fresh or inviting.

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    • I’ve been thinking about Bottled Goods since finishing it and there is quite a lot that I like about it – especially the final third. I think I like it better than many of the titles on the longlist, but then I didn’t find it to be a particularly strong selection this year compared to last.

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  3. I agree completely about Bottled Goods! Your thoughts on Remembered are particularly interesting, as that’s the last title from the list that I have to read (well, and finish Swan Song). I really hope my copy shows up in the next couple of days as I’d love to make a proper longlist wrap up post before the shortlist. I have similar reservations about going into that one; it’s hard to get excited about a book that centers on such an over-saturated subject, especially if it doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

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    • I was looking forward to Remembered; I liked the idea of a dual narrative encompassing the antebellum and the Reconstruction US. But then the former narrative, which is the more familiar, took over.

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  4. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019 | Laura Tisdall

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