Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.

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The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.

Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.

Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.

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Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.

While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertakingwhich was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.)  Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.

This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.

18 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

  1. Your review of The Paper Palace has fully justified my decision to DNF it. It is clear that the book doesn’t get any better and I agree with you completely that it doesn’t belong on the longlist.
    I have been putting off reading Remote Sympathy as the blurb didn’t really inspire me – I have read a lot of World War Two fiction – but it sounds like a solid read. Having just DNF’d another couple of books from the longlist, a solid read would be far from a bad thing!
    Similarly to your experience, though, the longlist has also offered some very pleasant surprises, and I would say that my reading experience so far has been a pretty even mix of successes and failures.

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    • I’d say The Paper Palace gets a lot worse after the first fifty pages! Definitely one to skip. Remote Sympathy is a really competent novel, which sounds like faint praise but is actually quite refreshing!

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  2. I’m surprised you attempted The Paper Palace! I got it back out from the library and tried again after its longlisting, but once again I abandoned it after just a few pages (ditto for The Island of Missing Trees). I noted in her bio that Heller was Head of Drama Series at HBO — maybe her talents translate better to the screen?

    I’m going to start The Exhibitionist today and my library has Salt Lick and Creatures of Passage on order, so I’ve reserved those. I think I’ll give Remote Sympathy a miss, though — I’m so burnt out on WWII stories.

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    • I was consumed by morbid curiosity after reading the reviews. I have to say that I found it an addictive read – I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it if I hadn’t wanted to keep turning the pages.

      Fair enough re. Remote Sympathy. I picked it up because I thought the blurb promised something rather weirder than we actually got.

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    • Yes, and tbf, I really liked Remote Sympathy. I don’t expect most of the books longlisted for any prize to blow me away (they aren’t choosing on the basis of my tastes), so feeling that a book was worth reading is pretty good!

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  3. I’ve looked at Paper Palace a couple of times and am so glad I decided to skip it. Your review confirms my worst fears about it.
    I don’t read very much WWII fiction, so I’m not tempted by Remote Sympathy (although it does sound interesting). I do intend to read Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist, which sounds fun.
    I’m glad that your reading of the long list has been a pleasurable experience. I used to occasionally do something similar with the Booker long list; although it could be a hit or miss experience, I usually ended up finding at least one new writer.

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    • I generally skip all WWII fiction as well! I picked up Remote Sympathy because the blurb seemed to hint at something weird and slightly speculative. It ended up being a standard historical novel, but it was very well done.

      I’ve tried shadowing a couple of different literary prizes in the past but the Women’s Prize, despite my complaints about it, is the one that most reliably introduces me to interesting books I wouldn’t have read otherwise.

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  4. The Paper Palace looks terrible! Goodness me! I’ve still only read The Exhibitionist and that’s all I fancy. Even that one was a bit can’t look / can’t look away at times but nothing like this. I just can’t do Holocaust books – I console myself with the fact that I do know about it and understand its reality, it’s not like I ignore, don’t know or deny it.

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    • Yes I definitely wouldn’t recommend you read either of these! The Paper Palace feels like a book from an earlier era – maybe 1990s/early 00s. I’m surprised to see it on this list.

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