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 Baggage, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, and 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’
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.
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.
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…
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?