Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019: Final Thoughts

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As all readers of this blog probably know by now, I found this a disappointing year for the Women’s Prize, especially following the incredibly strong longlist and shortlist in 2018. For me, the problem started with the longlist. Not only were some of my favourite novels written by women in the past year omitted (Lissa Evans’s Old BaggageSamantha Harvey’s The Western Windand Sarah Perry’s Melmoth), I found most of the novels on the longlist to be mildly or majorly disappointing – with the caveat that I haven’t read, and will not be reading, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant. For me, even novels that were evidently strong contenders, such as Ghost Wall, Normal People, The Pisces, Bottled Goods and The Silence of the Girls, failed to blow me away. My thoughts on the longlisted titles I’ve read are as follows, with a line from each of my reviews. In order of preference:

  • Milkman: ‘a uniquely frustrating read… incredible’
  • Ghost Wall: ‘a below par Moss novel is still very much worth reading’
  • The Silence of the Girls: the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided… [Nevertheless], wonderful’
  • The Pisces: ‘I wasn’t totally won over by this novel, but it will continue to niggle at me’
  • Normal People: ‘an addictive read… [but] I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as a future classic’
  • Freshwater: ‘doesn’t quite work at times… Nevertheless, this is a startling novel’
  • An American Marriage: ‘effortlessly readable… [but] not especially groundbreaking’
  • Bottled Goods: ‘very arresting… [but] too slight’
  • Lost Children Archive: ‘lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality [but] incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood
  • Circe: ‘the morality is a bit black-and-white… [but] Miller’s writing is still excellent’
  • My Sister, The Serial Killer: ‘is this really doing something edgy, or is it just more of the same from a flipped perspective?’
  • Ordinary People: ‘incredibly familiar… Evans is obviously a good writer – but I didn’t find her choice of material captivating’
  • Remembered: ‘weak writing… tips over into exploitative melodrama’

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Therefore, when the shortlist came out, I was less disappointed than many other bloggers, as the only longlisted titles I had strong positive feelings about were Milkman and The Silence of the Girls. My main feeling was relief that none of the titles I really didn’t like/really didn’t want to read had been shortlisted. However, inevitably, this is not a strong shortlist.

Who do I want to win? An American Marriage, Ordinary People and Circe are totally out of the running for me, and for different reasons, I don’t think any of them are likely winners. Milkman is by far the best novel on the shortlist and longlist, but has already won the Booker, and I don’t see this taking the Women’s Prize as well (though we all said they would never shortlist two classical retellings, so maybe!!!) This leaves two candidates.

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I would be very cross if My Sister, The Serial Killer took the prize. This fun and inventive thriller is simply not substantial enough to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Although this should have no bearing on my judgement of the book, I also find it difficult to take Braithwaite seriously as a writer after reading an interview with her where she gives the impression that she dashed this novel off quickly after deciding she wanted to get published by thirty. Perhaps Braithwaite will write brilliant novels in the future (she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016!), but this isn’t one of them.

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I’m hence backing The Silence of the Girls as the most likely, and most personally satisfying, winner. I found this retelling of the siege of Troy incredibly vivid and emotionally engaging. While I agree with other bloggers that the shifting points of view diluted the impact of the novel, I guess I simply wasn’t as invested in the idea of hearing the unheard voices of the women involved. Many retellings have already done this, notably Adele Geras’s Troy, though admittedly from inside rather than outside the city walls. I also disagree that the Women’s Prize has to reward novels with a specifically feminist agenda, although there’s certainly a feminist slant to this retelling. While I don’t believe that this is the best novel written by a women this past year, this would be the best outcome for me from the shortlist as it stands.

And the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 is…

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It would be fair to say this is an unexpected result, and I know many people will be cross. An American Marriage has already received plenty of acclaim in the US (Obama’s summer reading pick!) and it isn’t a technically accomplished novel. Choosing it over Milkman or even The Silence of the Girls is absurd. Nevertheless, my primary emotion is relief. Unlike My Sister, The Serial Killer, Ordinary People and Circe (though the last of those three is much better written), this was at least a novel that I warmed to, and I do like Jones as a writer. Congratulations to her, and let’s all cross our fingers for a stronger longlist next year!

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019?

22 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019: Final Thoughts

  1. I thought Circe was a far better novel than The Silence of the Girls, which I thought was one of Barker’s weaker books. However, for me it has to be Milkman. The fact that it has won the Booker should be irrelevant; it is the best novel on the list, that should be enough.

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    • Totally agree about Milkman! The split between those who preferred Circe and those who preferred Silence is interesting. Moral complexity is so important to me in fiction, and it was the lack of it that really let Circe down for me – but on the other hand, I know others feel strongly that Silence short-changed the other voiceless women by having so much narration from Achilles, albeit in third person.

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  2. You’re right – I’d lay money on The Silence of the Girls, mostly because the other serious contender on that shortlist is Milkman and I doubt the judging panel will want to dilute the impact of their announcement by choosing a book that’s already had a lot of attention. (I do prefer the reading experience of Circe over that of Silence, but Barker’s competent and capable and a win for her wouldn’t be nonsensical.)

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    • As I commented above, the equal split amongst bloggers I know between Circe and Silence is interesting! I think they’re equally well written (though I appreciated Barker’s clever use of modern dialect more) but Circe was structurally too episodic for me. Really rate Miller as a writer though, and I must re-read Song of Achilles. (though it’s just occurred to me, if Silence won, it’s v similar content wise to a previous winner… they have created problems for themselves with this shortlist)

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  3. Great post! Like you, I feel largely underwhelmed by this year’s prize (the shortlist in particular) which makes it difficult to feel fully invested in the eventual winner.

    My money is probably on Circe to take the title. The judges clearly love mythology retellings, and I imagine they’d enjoy being part of a historical year for the prize, since Miller would be the first author to win twice. Like you though, I would definitely rather Silence won!

    Not long to wait now until we find out! 😊

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  4. Great post!
    I am still not finished with the longlist or the shortlist for that matter, but I have now read enough of all the books to have opinions. As you know, I am weirdly enough rooting for Milkman, which frustrated me but also really impressed me. While I loved Silence of the Girls I know a lot of people would be cross if it won. I really don’t want Circe to win though – while it certainly is prettily written I am really struggling with the overall text. I cannot wait to see who wins!

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    • I’d be pretty annoyed if Circe, My Sister the Serial Killer or Ordinary People won. I could live with An American Marriage, even though it’s limited, because I did warm to the novel and liked the way Jones handled the reader’s shifting sympathies, and because I rate her as a writer overall.

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      • An American Marriage would make me very cross. I just did not get on with the novel and I found her characters difficult. I found Roy so awful that I started doubting his innocence which really undermined the book for me.
        I think unless Silence or Milkman won, I’d be not super thrilled to be fair.

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        • I guess I assumed that the novel would be about the wrong done to Roy, so I appreciated that he wasn’t a perfect victim – although I don’t think I found him as objectionable as you did!

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          • For the injustice angle I appreciated him being difficult – his being likable has nothing to do with the rights he should be afforded. But he so very obviously has issues with consent that I was starting to wonder if he really was that clearly innocent.

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            • It’s almost a year now since I read An American Marriage so I can’t remember the details, but I guess I felt that was the set-up in terms of reader expectations, so Roy’s behaviour when he gets out of jail is less significant in that respect. But I’d need to re-read!

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  5. I share your feeling of disappointment. If I were to pick a winner, I would go for Milkman, but largely because others do not appeal to me much. I do not even want to read them. I am not usually that picky – strangely, I am not interested. And two shortlisted books concern folklore or mythology. Books on folklore and retelling are becoming best-sellers nowadays.The “clever” authors are tapping in our already Harry Potter-programmed brains and they are reaping substantial benefits. Who can blame them.

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    • It’s hard for me to separate whether my enjoyment of folklore retellings is due to Harry Potter or not. I’ve been enjoying them pretty much as soon as I was old enough for them, but then I’d already read Harry Potter by then, so…

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  6. I totally agree about the overall anticlimax that is this year’s prize, honestly I’m just ready to be done with it! If Milkman or Silence doesn’t win I will be very annoyed.

    Also, is Adele Geras’s Troy good? That’s one of the Trojan War retellings I still have to get to.

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  7. Pingback: Wrap Up: June 2019 or apparently I am a romance blogger now – I have thoughts on books

  8. Pingback: Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Final Thoughts | Laura Tisdall

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