Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

I have now read eleven of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, which is pretty much what I planned (I’m definitely going to read Normal People whatever happens, but I won’t be reading Praise Song for the Butterflies, Swan Song, Number One Chinese Restaurant or The Pisces unless they’re shortlisted, based on a combination of other bloggers’ reviews and personal taste). First, I’ll present my own personal wish list. WHICH IS:

I’ve made the executive decision to put Normal People on here without actually reading it, as I’m so annoyed by how I’ve been continually thwarted by my local libraries in my efforts to read this novel, but in case I hate it, I have an runner-up option:

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I have to say that, for me, this longlist isn’t nearly as strong as the 2018 longlist, which explains the inclusion of titles such as An American Marriage and Bottled Goods on my personal wish list, even if neither of these novels blew me away. However, here’s why I chose each of these titles, with links to my reviews. In no particular order:

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney. While, as admitted above, I haven’t read this story of schoolfriends Connell and Marianne growing up in rural Ireland and heading to Dublin for university, I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it. My review of Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friendsis here.
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This debut novel, which memorably declares ‘One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match’, considers Ada’s struggle with her various selves, understood through the lens of Igbo belief rather than Western psychological categories. Original and thought-provoking.
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. For me, this was probably the most emotionally engaging of the longlisted titles; I was riveted by Barker’s brutal account of the enslaving of Briseis by the Greek army and her life among the other women of the camp. Yes, it treads familiar ground, but with enough authenticity to put it head and shoulders over other recent classical retellings.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns. This account of a young woman’s negotiation of the power politics of her Northern Irish neighbourhood was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Burns’s elliptic writing is both infuriating and illuminating; I can’t stop thinking about the way in which she conjures up paranoia.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I don’t seem to have been as blown away by this novella as other bloggers were; I think Moss has written better, notably The Tidal Zone and Signs for Lost Children. Nevertheless, this first-person narrative from teenage Silvie, who’s been taken by her controlling father to a recreated Iron Age camp in Northumbria, displays Moss’s characteristic intelligence and observational skill. It deserves to be on the shortlist.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. While this is not an technically brilliant novel in the same way as others on my wishlist (Jones’s debut, Leaving Atlantawas a lot better), Jones’s incredibly readable prose belies the skill of her writing. This novel focuses on an African-American couple, Celestial and Roy, who are torn apart after Roy is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. What I really liked about An American Marriage was the even-handedness with which Jones dealt with her main characters, and its thoughtful exploration of genuine moral dilemmas.
  • BONUS INSURANCE CHOICE! Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn. This little novella has been niggling at me since I finished it. While I initially found this series of flash fiction pieces set in communist Romania somewhat underwhelming, its final image – and the reason for its title – won’t leave me. The way in which van Llewyn weaves in the magical realism/folktale element here is very well done, and  reminiscent of Tea Obreht’s wonderful The Tiger’s Wife. I’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

However, what I want to see shortlisted isn’t necessarily what I actually think will be shortlisted, so, regardless of my personal preferences, here are six predictions:

My logic:

  • I think one of the Greek retellings will make it, and Circe seems to be getting more traction than The Silence of the Girls, even though it’s far inferior.
  • There’s so much buzz around Valeria Luiselli, and it would be nice for the Prize to shortlist someone from a Latin American background, so I think Lost Children Archive will make it through, despite my personal misgivings.
  • It seems like it might finally be Sarah Moss’s moment, so I think Ghost Wall will be shortlisted.
  • Freshwater has the dual advantages of being written by the Prize’s first non-binary longlistee, and drawing expertly on Igbo belief.
  • My sense is that one of the longlisted novels that deal with black oppression in the US will also make it through, and I can only hope that the Prize has the sense to make it An American Marriage.
  • Finally, I was torn between two Irish novelsNormal People and Milkman, for the final slot, but felt that Burns’ examination of cold civil war might edge it.

This would also leave us with a nicely balanced shortlist that reflects the racial diversity of the longlist. I would actually be quite happy with this shortlist, though it isn’t my ideal, so hopefully I’ll be proved right!

EDIT 29/4/19: The actual shortlist is here!

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Overall, I’m pretty pleased with this. Three that I predicted, three that I wanted, six that I’ve read (!), and my two frontrunners, Milkman and The Silence of the Girls, still in play! While I wasn’t sure there was much depth to My Sister, The Serial Killer, it’s definitely a memorable read, and while Circe didn’t convince me as a whole, Miller’s prose is wonderful, and there are some very strong chapters and scenes. The only title I can’t really get behind is Ordinary People, which I thought was middle-brow and mediocre. However, there were certainly much weaker titles on the longlist, and Evans is not a bad writer by any means. Poor Sarah Moss has been slighted once again, and I’m still going to seek out Sally Rooney’s latest. But I’m looking forward to see who wins the Prize when the result is announced on the 5th June, though I’m finding the winner very hard to predict – Circe? Silence of the Girls? An American Marriage?

What are your thoughts on my shortlist predictions and wishlist, and the official shortlist itself? Who do you think will win the Prize this year?

 

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18 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

  1. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Ghost Wall – I wasn’t a fan of Normal People (although I enjoyed Conversations with Friends) but it is hard to imagine a shortlist without it at the moment! I have An American Marriage from the library, so am looking forward to that this month.

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    • I honestly couldn’t decide whether to predict that Normal People or Milkman would be shortlisted (obviously, they could both be there!) Both have had a fair amount of hype but Milkman seems to me to have more going for it. However, I am looking forward to reading Normal People.

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  2. I think your predicted shortlist is pretty plausible! I’d prefer not to see An American Marriage there—it’s an engaging story and very competently executed, but it didn’t really stay with me after I’d finished—but it doesn’t seem unlikely.

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    • I do think this is a weaker year for the Women’s Prize than last year. If An American Marriage had been on last year’s longlist, there’s no way I’d have wanted it to be shortlisted, but I just didn’t feel strongly about many of the novels this year.

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      • That’s funny—I feel exactly the opposite! Last year the only books I could summon up any enthusiasm for were Elmet, Mermaid and Mrs, and Home Fire to a limited extent, and I’d already read all of those; nothing on the longlist that was new to me was also exciting, which is always what I look to prize lists for.

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        • Interesting! I feel like I haven’t discovered anything that really excited me through reading the longlist this year. The only new-to-me book I really liked was The Silence of the Girls, and it’s not perfect by any means. Last year, I know Sight was divisive, but I loved it, and I also really liked When I Hit You and Sing, Unburied, Sing (plus the titles you mention). I think there were more completely rubbish entries on last year’s longlist, but I guess I prefer them to be either great or rubbish than meh!

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  3. For selfish reasons I do hope you give The Pisces a try because I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts on it – it’s not at all (like, at all) my normal kind of book but I was utterly enchanted and gripped by it, and I think it’s in my top 3 from the entire longlist. But anyway, swap out AAM for The Pisces and we have the exact same wants list (assuming NP stays in there over BG), and swap out AAM for Serial Killer and we’ve got the same predictions. I’m so excited/nervous about the announcement!

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    • The combined efforts of you and Elle are gradually encouraging me towards The Pisces! I do struggle with books that are explicitly gross (e.g. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen), but it’s hard to tell if this is true of The Pisces without reading it. I’m just making assumptions from other people’s reviews.

      Ha, amazing that our wishlists and predictions are so close! I can see Serial Killer making it through.

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      • It’s definitely explicitly gross and I fully understand that being a deal-breaker for some people, but imo it felt a bit different from Moshfegh’s approach – I felt like the grossness in Eileen (though I did love that book as well to be fair) was deliberately trying to provoke the reader, and Broder’s approach was much more natural, like she was simply not interested in sanitizing the traditionally sanitized female-led romance. But it’s worth noting that I like slightly uncomfortable reading experiences and I fully respect that this kind of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But given that there’s quite a bit of overlap in our tastes I’d just be curious to see what you make of it!

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        • That’s helpful, thanks – I think what I really disliked about Eileen is that it all felt so gratituous and deliberately unpleasant. It’s good to know The Pisces is less like that.

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          • I definitely get where you’re coming from – I loved both of Moshfegh’s novels but I HATED her short story collection for pretty much the same reason – reading about terrible people doing gross and terrible things gets old fast. I think Eileen worked for me because she at least delved into this character’s psyche enough that her behavior was contextualized, which was interesting if still unpleasant. So yes, I wouldn’t say The Pisces is like that – still a bit gross but a different kind of gross imo.

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  4. Pingback: Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder) | Laura Tisdall

  5. Pingback: Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney) | Laura Tisdall

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