This post offers a break from my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist coverage with… more Women’s Prize content!
The Women’s Prize for Fiction is setting up a #ReadingWomen challenge this year, challenging readers to read all 24 of the previous prize winners. I’ve been desultorily pursuing this aim since 2015 and so have a head start – I only had 5 previous winners left to read when they announced the challenge!
A long time ago in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction was still called the Orange Prize*, I was only a child and did not follow the Prize as obsessively as I do now. Because of this, most of the winners that I haven’t yet read are from this earlier period of the Prize’s history. In this post, I’m taking a look at two of these early winners; the remaining three will be covered in later posts. Eventually, I will try and rank all 24 (though this will be dubious as I read some of them a LONG time ago).
*although this name lasted until 2012 and is still my favourite iteration of the Women’s Prize’s various names. There’s something that feels so fitting about it, as if men are the standard apples of the literary world and women are the sharper, more innovative oranges, even though I know it’s the name of the sponsor!
Anne Michaels’ debut novel Fugitive Pieces was the second ever winner of the Orange Prize, in 1997. The book is narrated by Jakob Beer, who fled the Holocaust as a young boy in Poland, hiding in a forest after his parents and older sister Bella were taken by the Nazis. Jakob is rescued by a Greek geologist Athos, who takes him first to Greece and then to Toronto. In the last third of the book, the narrative switches to Ben, a Canadian professor of weather patterns (classic literary fiction job) whose parents were also Holocaust survivors and who, it transpires, is their third but only living child. Ben becomes obsessed with Jakob’s poetry as a way of helping him understand the trauma his family has suffered, despite the fact that Jakob himself failed to process the horrors in his own past.
I anticipated that I would struggle with Fugitive Pieces because of the ubiquity of Holocaust narratives in contemporary literature; what I didn’t anticipate was the incredible pretentiousness of its prose. Elle has pretty much said everything I want to say about this novel’s writing in her brilliant review, so I won’t dwell on the subject, but as an example, this are the kind of musings our narrators go in for:
History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.
Lightning has restored a man’s sight and also his hair.
Ball lightning enters through a window, a door, a chimney. Silently it circles the room, browses the bookshelf and, as if unable to decide where to sit, disappears through the same air passage by which it entered.
A thousand accumulated moments come to fruition in a few seconds. Your cells are reassembled. Struck, your metal melted. Your burnt shape is branded into the chair, vacancy where once you inhabited society. Worst of all, she appears to you as everything you’ve ever lost.
It sometimes seems unfair to pluck paragraphs from a book and critique them, but in Fugitive Pieces, this is exactly how they read in the narrative. Michaels’ prose often feels like a series of strung-together sentences that have no obvious connection to each other, and often deliberately obscure meaning, as in the first passage, where past events move from being a poisoned well to a brick to compost. Occasionally she hits upon something that is strong out of context; I like the sentence ‘Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head’ and the idea of ball lightning browsing the bookshelf. But none of this adds up to anything, because the prose isn’t doing any work. Incidentally, the first passage above comes from Jakob’s section of the book and the second from Ben’s; the two narrators are completely indistinguishable, which to my mind is a pretty unforgivable novelistic sin.
Furthermore, the passage about the lightning prefigures Ben’s meeting with one of the few female characters in this novel, and it’s entirely typical. Women in this world always ‘appear’ to men when they need them, manifesting as a cluster of ideal traits, never as individuals in their own right. Jakob’s first wife, Alex, is a manic pixie dream girl before the term was fashionable; she seems to only have one character trait, which is making incredibly annoying puns: ‘I’m making a check list, is Liszt Czech?’ His second wife, Michaela, draws an even shorter straw, as her only defining characteristic is that she is so much younger than Jakob, a fact of which we are continually reminded: ‘I dream of Michaela – young, glistening smooth as marble, sugary wet with sunlight’. The women in Ben’s life are similarly attuned to what his narrative arc needs at any given point, and appear and disappear accordingly.
It’s hard for me to think of a novel that does so many of the things I hate most, and so, despite its occasional moments of emotional clarity – for example, Jakob’s memories and imaginings of his sister Bella – Fugitive Pieces was an outright failure for me.
Valerie Martin’s seventh novel, Property, won the Orange Prize in 2003. Set in the 1820s, it’s narrated by Manon, the wife of a Louisiana slaveowner who hates her husband and longs to return to her native New Orleans; but even the hope of inheriting her mother’s property is tainted by her knowledge that it will be swallowed up by her husband’s debts. Manon’s frustration and rage is turned upon an enslaved woman, Sarah, who has been forced to have two children with Manon’s husband, and who now, in Manon’s eyes, haunts her house like a living reminder of this infidelity. As rumours of a slave rebellion move through the South, Manon herself becomes increasingly restless and abusive towards this woman who is in her power.
Recently, I’ve been concerned by certain literary furores that seem to suggest that novelists should not write in the voice of an oppressor. I’m working on a longer post on this issue at the moment, but in short, I think this arises from the misguided assumption that fiction has only one purpose – to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people whose stories we need to hear. If this were true, it would be obvious why we shouldn’t write from the perspective of those who hold power over others, as they already control the narrative in the real world. But while ‘giving voice’ to the oppressed can be a function of fiction, I don’t think it’s the most important thing fiction can do, and it definitely isn’t the only thing novels are for. This is demonstrated perfectly by Property. If we’re playing by ‘giving voice’ rules, then this is a terrible novel – we only hear from an abusive, privileged and selfish white woman, while all the black characters, both enslaved and free, are totally silenced. But imprisoning the reader in Manon’s head sheds light on the self-justifying logic of those who practiced slavery. Manon is acutely aware of the injustices that she faces – as a married woman, she is not able to hold property in her own right, for example. Nevertheless, she is completely unable to view enslaved people as anything but subhuman. While she dislikes her husband’s exceptionally cruel behaviour towards some enslaved boys, this seems to be more a matter of what she views as good estate management rather than morality.
Martin’s portrayal of Manon also plays with received wisdom about the function of a protagonist. Manon is not a traditional protagonist nor even an antagonist – she exercises very little agency and spends most of her time bemoaning her lot. Meanwhile, Sarah, who speaks only a handful of sentences over the novel’s pages, is the most active character in the novel, albeit largely off-screen. This doesn’t mean that Sarah is our protagonist either, but I think this helps us to understand the power of Martin’s authorial choices. Some reviewers have suggested that this would be a better novel if it gave Sarah a narrative voice as well, but I think this misses the point. It is precisely Sarah’s silence in the story, I would suggest, that brings home the totality of slavery as an institution. Sarah, as we know from hearsay, is an articulate and intelligent woman, but she will not speak to Manon because her voice is something that Manon cannot own. By refusing to relate her own story, Sarah makes herself unknowable, and hence, to Manon’s persistent frustration, forever beyond the complete domination that Manon craves. Seventeen years after it was first published, Property still has a great deal to say.