Ranking All 25 Winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction #ReadingWomen

The Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce their Winner of Winners on November 1st, which marks the end of the #ReadingWomen challenge.

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I have now read all twenty-five winners of the Women’s Prize! Here is my *totally definitive* ranking. Links are to my reviews, where they exist. The dates refer to the years these novels won the Prize, which is not always the same year they were published.

  1. Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (2011). Natalia’s grandfather has recently died, and she’s working as a doctor in an unnamed Balkan nation recovering from civil war. Obreht seamlessly blends the folktales that Natalia’s grandfather used to tell her into the central narrative, creating a hugely evocative and magical novel.
  2. Lisa McInerney, The Glorious Heresies (2016). Set in Cork, this marvellously vital novel never falters. Ryan is such a great evocation of a teenage boy trying to stay on the rails – and he’s just one of the cast of characters. McInerney has since written two follow-ups, The Blood Miracles and The Rules of Revelation.
  3. Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin (2005). Infamously, this book is narrated by Eva, who is wondering whether she should ever have had children after her repulsive teenage son Kevin murders a lot of his classmates. As always with Shriver, this book is a bit of a mess, but it’s an unforgettable mess that has a lot of interesting things to say about motherhood and childhood.
  4. Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (2012). A wonderful, lyrical account of the Trojan War from the point of view of Patroclus which makes great use of miniature stories within the main narrative, and which benefits from having been published before the recent flood of Ancient Greek retellings!
  5. Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire (2018). Three Muslim siblings are torn apart by the legacy of their father’s torture and death in Afghanistan. Deeply moving and completely gripping, Shamsie vividly evokes this set of characters and makes you feel for them.
  6. Valerie Martin, Property (2003). Manon, a slaveowner’s wife in 1820s Louisiana, narrates the injustices of her own life while ignoring the suffering of the enslaved people on her plantation. Martin so cleverly uses ideas of who gets to speak and who is silenced to paint this horrific portrait of white supremacy.
  7. AM Homes, May We Be Forgiven (2013). A series of random and violent events in a year in the life of Harry, a university lecturer. A bizarre, funny and episodic novel which veers between brilliance and banality.
  8. Naomi Alderman, The Power (2017). Set in an alternative version of the present in which women have developed the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips, and so start to create a matriarchy. There’s lots to criticise in this novel, given the size of the task Alderman set herself, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it.
  9. Eimear McBride, A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing (2014). An unnamed Irish Catholic narrator navigates her way to adulthood in a stream of consciousness. McBride’s poetry-prose is incredibly clever, and works particularly well when read aloud, but I engaged with this more as a literary experiment than on the visceral level that I think it demands.
  10. Carol Shields, Larry’s Party (1998). We witness the life of Larry Weller, an ‘ordinary’ Canadian man obsessed with hedge mazes, in year-by-year vignettes. In many ways I felt this was evocative and thoughtful, hence its relatively high ranking, but it didn’t quite come together for me.
  11. Marilynne Robinson, Home (2009). Taking place concurrently to Robinson’s incredible 2004 novel GileadGlory Boughton has returned home to care for her dying father, and re-encounters her wayward brother. None of the sequels to Gilead have really worked for me; Robinson is a wonderful writer, but I wish she’d let the original novel stand on its own.
  12. Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2019). African-American couple Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when Roy is unjustly sentenced to prison for twelve years. Effortlessly readable and thought-provoking, there perhaps wasn’t quite enough to this book to merit its win, but it did lead me to check out Jones’s other work.
  13. Kate Grenville, The Idea of Perfection (2001). Harley has come to the tiny Australian town of Karakarook to preserve its heritage; Douglas has come to dismantle a historic bridge. Nevertheless, the two are drawn to each other. Sweet, funny and smart, this didn’t blow me away, but it’s well worth reading.
  14. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of A Yellow Sun (2007). Set in 1960s Nigeria, this explores the impact of civil war on its four central protagonists, as well as questioning who has the right to tell a country’s history. This taught me so much about the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, but it didn’t click for me as a work of fiction.
  15. Ali Smith, How To Be Both (2015). This flips between the perspectives of a teenage girl trying to come to terms with the death of her mother and the Renaissance artist  Francesco del Cossa. A lot of Ali Smith’s later books blend into one for me, although I enjoy her intelligence and inventiveness.
  16. Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004). Jamaican couple Gilbert and Hortense come to Britain after the Second World War, and find their illusions of the country shattered. Important because of its subject-matter, but for me, a little schematic.
  17. Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter (1996). Catherine and Rob grow up isolated from the world in their grandfather’s Edwardian Manor House before the First World War. A weird and heavily atmospheric novel, I was never quite as enthralled by this as I wanted to be, despite Dunmore’s brilliant prose.
  18. Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (2020). Shakespeare’s wife Agnes deals with the sudden death of their son Hamnet. Beautifully-written but, for me, emotionally distant, and Agnes was too much of a stock protagonist.
  19. Zadie Smith, On Beauty (2006). A retelling of EM Forster’s
    Howards End, this focuses on a mixed-race British-American family living in the US. I think this is the book on the list that I read the longest time ago, when I was an undergraduate, but I remember finding the characters caricatures.
  20. Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna (2010). Our American narrator recounts his experience of working in the household of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the midst of the Mexican revolution. I struggle with novels that make extensive use of diary entries, so this was never going to be a hit with me, and it also suffered from Kingsolver’s tendency to moralise.
  21. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2002). A group of terrorists take a prestigious set of guests hostage in an unnamed South American country. Poor Ann Patchett, this is by far her worst work; I thought it was melodramatic and overly stylised.
  22. Linda Grant, When We Lived In Modern Times (2000). Evelyn emigrates from Soho to Palestine in 1946. It’s a long time since I read this one, but I remember it as extremely dry, if educational, and Grant’s more recent novels seem to follow a similar trend.
  23. Suzanne Berne, A Crime In The Neighbourhood (1999). Our ten-year-old narrator tells us about the murder of a child in a suburb of Washington DC against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal. This made very little impression on me; I found the child’s-eye-view cliched.
  24. Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces (1997). Jakob’s family were killed in the Holocaust when he was only a small boy, and he tries to make a life for himself out of the fragments of his past. This book completely drowned in its own purple prose, despite some promising emotional content.
  25. Rose Tremain, The Road Home (2008). Lev emigrates to London from an unnamed Eastern European country and observes the odd behaviour of its residents. To be honest, this is better written than Fugitive Pieces, but I found it so stereotypical and offensive that I feel it belongs in the bottom slot.

You can also check out Bookish Beck’s ranking of all 25 novels here.

Obviously, this was an odd exercise. I read some of these books a decade ago and some very recently, although I did have a pretty vivid impression of every one of them (the only exception was Larry’s Party, which I actually re-read in order to rank it, and I’m glad I did!) It also threw up the difference between what we remember of a reading experience and what we felt about it at the time. I’ve always told everyone how much I adore The Tiger’s Wife, but re-reading my review, I was a little more hesitant in 2012. In contrast, I raved about The Glorious Heresies in 2015, but events since, especially my disappointment with The Blood Miracles, have made me feel less enthusiastic. And that’s only the top two rankings… so you’ll imagine that the rest have to be taken with a pinch of salt as well.

One frustrating thing about this list was having to rank certain writers that I love so low. There seems to be a trend to award great writers the Women’s Prize for their weakest books. I grew so annoyed by this that I’ve picked out my actual favourite books by the writers concerned. Here’s my alternative list, with notes as to whether the Prize recognised these books at all at the time:

So, who do I want to win the Winner of Winners award?  Obviously:

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Who do I think will win? I’m not actually sure how the winner is being judged – it sounds like the public vote will factor in, but won’t be the only factor. So I’ll make two predictions: one for the judges’ choice and one for the public’s choice.

The judges’ choice: Unlike the run-of-the mill Prize, I don’t think this is AT ALL predictable. There are a couple of rules that I think will be in play:

  • I doubt the Prize will honour its most recent winners (so An American Marriage and Hamnet, at the very least, will be out).
  • I don’t think the Prize will give this award to either of the two books it picked out for its last two winner-of-winner style things (so Small Island and Half of A Yellow Sun are out).
  • This is more subjective, but there a few books on the list that, in my opinion, have dated so badly that it would be very surprising to choose them. These are: Fugitive Pieces, The Road Home and A Crime In The Neighbourhood.
  • Lionel Shriver is such a massive liability these days that they won’t give the award to We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Unfortunately, even if you assume that all of this is 100% accurate, I still have 17 books left to choose from! So here’s my very unlikely gamble:

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I feel like this plays into the spirit and ethos of the Prize; it traces the intricate selfhood of a young woman, and it was also pretty much ignored, IIRC, until the Prize recognised it, propelling McBride to a successful literary career.

The public choice: This will be a book that has either won the prize very recently or has real staying power. For that reason, I think a number of the older novels that I ruled out above are back in play: Small Island, Half of A Yellow Sun, We Need To Talk About Kevin. However, my guess would be, simply because it’s fresh in everybody’s minds:

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What is your favourite of the books on this list? And who do you think might win the Winner of Winners award?

Baileys Prize Shortlist Round-Up, #3

the-dark-circleMy other reviews of the Baileys-shortlisted novels can be found here, here and here.

The Dark Circle was the last of the shortlisted Baileys books I read, and I’m afraid my feelings about it are rather lukewarm. This feels unfair, because Grant achieves everything that she sets out to do; but in contrast to the ambition displayed by the other five books on the list, The Dark Circle felt hemmed in by its own deliberate claustrophobia.

Lenny and Miriam, a Jewish brother and sister, are dispatched from the East End of London to a sanatorium in Kent when they are diagnosed with TB in 1949. Ensconced in this modernist prison, they meet a range of people from all walks of life; from Oxford student Valerie, with whom Miriam shares a freezing cold veranda, to salesman Colin Cox, to the mysterious Hannah, a German lesbian, whose girlfriend is desperately trying to get her access to the latest treatment for TB, the antibiotic streptomycin. The struggle for streptomycin, which is the only hope that most of the patients have for a cure, highlights Grant’s brilliant evocation of an institution caught between a deferential past and a welfare-state future. The sanatorium’s director finds it hard to cope with newer, bolshier, less ‘refined’ patients, and seems less sorry about the restricted supplies of antibiotics than he should be (the scene where he selects four patients to receive the doses that are available is one of the most fascinating in the book, as he makes his choice for reasons ranging from their good moral character to the fact that they build too many things out of matchsticks and it would be good to get rid of them). Grant has carefully researched the alternative, brutal treatments for TB, such as the collapse of a lung or the removal of ribs, and these experiences are vividly portrayed in the suffering of the patients.

Technically, The Dark Circle is excellent. And yet I still struggled with it. The story felt weirdly familiar, even though I can’t name a single comparison title; the arrival of the brash American Arthur Persky, who shakes up sanatorium routines, seemed inevitable, especially the way that he cuts a swathe through the nearby female population by introducing them to oral sex. But the familiarity might not have been a problem if I hadn’t found the book such grim reading. Of course, this shows that Grant has managed exactly what she wanted; she clearly wants us to feel hemmed in by the impossibly dull lives of the patients and to be distressed by the pointlessness of most of the medical options offered. But it wasn’t a novel that I wanted to return to, especially as nobody ever really seems to escape from behind their NHS-provided bars. The few chapters that deal with the world outside, such as the life of Hannah’s girlfriend Sarah, working in London on early television programmes and struggling to deal with the fact that TV is seen as both ‘low-class’ and expensive – were a great relief. The tiny world in which these characters move felt even smaller by the final page.

(Finally, I don’t know what it says about me and/or The Dark Circle that I could remember ‘streptomycin’ without referring to the text but had to look up the names of most of the characters…)

bwpffshortlist2017-5So, now to the task of putting these six very good novels in some kind of order. My top three all impressed me so much that I’d be happy to see any of them win – and to be honest, all six books have some claim to victory. But in my opinion…

MY WINNER: The Power: Naomi Alderman

2. The Sport of Kings: CE Morgan

3. Stay With Me: Ayòbámi Adébáyò

4. First Love: Gwendoline Riley

5. Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Madeleine Thien

6. The Dark Circle: Linda Grant

I’ve written lots already about these six books, so I won’t say much more here, but in brief: as a reader, I tend to admire daring, scope and heart, even when things go a bit wrong or the writer can’t quite pull it off. I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Lifefor example. So big imaginative books tend to score more highly with me than smaller, more perfect works of art – which is obviously a very subjective thing. Ultimately, The Power is the book from the list that I still think about most, and which will remain with me the longest – that’s why it’s my winner.

I’m looking forward to the announcement of the actual prize on 7th June!

Finally, I was pleased to see that, adopting a collective sponsorship model, the Baileys will be the Women’s Prize For Fiction from 2018 onwards. I think this makes its future more secure – and to be honest, it’s still the Orange Prize to me…

Baileys Prize Shortlist Round-Up, #2

The first part of my Baileys Prize musings can be found here.

51mmlVB41eL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_So, The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan. I still haven’t absolutely made up my mind how to rank the shortlisted novels, but this is a strong contender for my favourite. As I said in my first post, I read this novel in a few huge gulps over quite a long space of time because it wouldn’t fit in my backpack. Fortunately, I think this approach suited it well. Morgan’s second novel traces two interlinked, epic narratives. The first is the story of the Forge family, important landowners in Kentucky, and especially the story of Henry Forge, who breaks away from his family’s legacy of corn farming to breed racehorses, a new endeavour which he hopes to bequeath to his daughter Henrietta. Evolutionary imagery dominates the novel from the start – Morgan uses a number of quotations from On the Origin of Species as chapter epigraphs – underwriting the Forges’ violently racist views and actions as well as Henry’s conception of his destiny. The second starts with Allmon Shaughnessy, a mixed-race boy growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, divided from Kentucky by the Ohio River – famously crossed by escaping slaves in the nineteenth century, as it formed part of the border between free states and slave states. Allmon’s life, brutally hard because of his race and poverty, is tied into a wider history of white supremacy and black subjugation in the United States, as Morgan intersperses interludes about former slaves fleeing slavery. This legacy of historical violence against the bodies of black people sits in opposition to the teleological and misunderstood evolutionary beliefs held by the Forges: as Henry believes, ‘evolution is a ladder to perfection… You can chart the development of the horse right up the ladder.’

[Spoilers for the first half of The Sport of Kings follow.]

I have rarely found anything as emotionally difficult to read as Allmon’s section of the narrative (although Hanya Yanighara’s A Little Life is probably up there, and Lionel Shriver’s So Much For All That is as excruciatingly right about US healthcare). Allmon grows up under the care of his mother, Marie, who struggles to provide for her son after she develops lupus – a disease which disproportionately affects black women – which puts her in incredible, relentless pain. Her symptoms start when Allmon is ten, but told by the doctor that, without health insurance (‘she made just barely too much to qualify for Medicaid but couldn’t afford private insurance – not that they’d insure her now anyway’), she can’t afford the treatment she needs. ‘I’m just a doctor,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make the system and I can’t change it.‘ Marie loses her welfare benefits because she’s kept hold of her one asset, a car, so Allmon gets involved in drug running to make some money for the household. Eventually, he makes enough to take her to another doctor, who tells him that ‘your mother has a lot of the soft criteria for lupus, but not the hard criteria.’ He can’t give her a diagnosis, so she won’t qualify for disability benefits. Allmon gets into a prestigious athletics school, but, still a teenager, is arrested for being on the scene of a riot and ends up in prison for two years. Once he gets out, his mother is dying. She is eventually rushed to hospital, despite her protests that an ambulance costs ‘a thousand dollars’.

‘But by then it was too late. His mother’s kidneys had failed, and she died under the care of the shocked ER physician, who took one look at the lupoid lesions that had ravaged her neck and torso, and said with his hand over his surgical mask, “Jesus Christ. Who let this happen to her?’

To which the only answer can be: all of you. All of us.

I agree with Naomi Frisby that The Sport of Kings is too long; nevertheless, I think all the ground it covers is essential, to fully position these two competing historical stories about inheritance and to finally demolish Henry’s supremacist views about the quest for perfection in a conversation with local vet Lou:

“[The] horse was the remnant of an evolutionary failure. …”

An evolutionary failure.”

Well, yes,” said Lou, clearing her throat. “It’s really the first thing you learn when you study evolution in school…”

Evolution is a ladder,” whispered Henry, “a ladder to a perfect thing.”

Actually, no, not really.” Lou shook her head quizzically… “It’s not a ladder. It’s more like… a bush… Think of it as a branching bush. A great, endlessly diversifying bush that gets stronger with each new branch, each new variation.”

The Sport of Kings is filled with its oppressive atmosphere, its ambitious thematic reach and its exuberant storytelling; it’s messy, too wordy, and untidy at the edges, but then, that seems to have been precisely what Morgan was going for.

31-7AfADNKL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_From the longest novel on the shortlist to the shortest: Gwendoline Riley’s First Love. Narrated in first person by Neve, it flashes between her present-day misery, married to an older man, Edwyn, and her past misery, finally breaking free from her bullying father to live alone in Glasgow. It’s incredibly well-written; the polar opposite of The Sport of Kings with its spare, unshowy prose. Riley hits so many nails on their heads: ‘large crows executed their leisurely inspecting strut’; ‘[the wood-pigeons’] fussy wing-slaps, like rifled cards’; ‘the sky’s cold threat.’ I think the last novel I read that was simply this well-written was Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief

Riley is also fantastic with dialogue; it’s wincingly realistic, far more so than most writers allow themselves. Neve and Edwyn’s endearments are embarrassingly awkward to read but recognisable: “How are your poor poorly paws?” I said… “Naughty paw.” She also uses italics liberally, especially when writing Edwyn’s or Neve’s mother’s speech, something which writers are generally discouraged from doing but which absolutely works here. Neve’s mother, indeed, is one of the best characters in the novel; not simply vicious like Edwyn or Neve’s father, she is burdensome and selfish, but still endearing. When Neve accompanies her to the cinema, this little anecdote is genuinely painful:

I always felt terrible when she said, of something she’d looked forward to, and with only just a shade less brightness to her voice, that it had been “Not what I expected.”‘

Riley brings her to life with just a few scatters of sentences like these. She texts Neve: ‘CUT ALL MY HAIR OFF DO YOU WANT BRUSH AND BOBBLES ETC. MUM.’ “So yes, I thought, I’ve got this hairbrush now that I don’t need and these bobbles, so…” “I have got my own hairbrush, thanks,” Neve tells her.

First Love is a brilliant snapshot of reality. For me, it didn’t quite feel substantial enough to be my preferred winner, but then, I’ve always been especially fond of big, messy, flawed novels rather than beautifully precise short ones.

Baileys Prize Shortlist Round-Up, #1

baileys-womens-prize-for-fiction-2017-longlist-announcement_4As many bloggers, reviewers and readers have already commented, 2017 is an exceptionally strong year for the Baileys Prize. Having read five out of six of the shortlisted books (Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle is waiting for me at the library), I can honestly say that I would consider any of them to be a worthy winner. (Indeed, given the quality of the shortlist, I’m tempted to do something I rarely do, and go back to the longlist: I’ve already read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Emma Flint’s Little Deaths, but I’m tempted by Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, and (obviously) Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians.) However, there were certainly entries that I thought stronger than others; conversely, nothing has so utterly blown me away that I’m certain it’s my winner. Having already reviewed Naomi Alderman’s The Power, in this series of round-up posts I’m going to say what I thought about the other shortlisted novels, and then give my final ranking.

31349579Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me is a tremendously moving account of the life of a single Nigerian woman, Yejide, spanning almost thirty years from the military coups of the 1980s to the relatively more peaceful territory of 2008. Her story starts and ends in Ilesa in south-west Nigeria, where, as a young university student, she meets and falls in love with Akin. The blurb for Stay With Me gives us a neat elevator pitch: when Yejide fails to get pregnant, Akin’s family, especially his mother, to whom Yejide is especially close, decide that he must take another wife who can give him children. When the new wife, Funmi, appears on the scene, Yejide’s relationship with Akin is threatened. All of this accurately represents the opening chapters of Stay With Me, but it really isn’t a good indication of where the book is going to go – or even what it is about. Similarly, I felt a little misled by the rather platitudinous cherry-picked quotes that seem to turn up in a lot of the marketing for this book. For example: ‘There are things even love can’t do… If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.’ This does not showcase the best of Adébáyò’s writing, which is witty, concise, and much more moving when it is rooted in characterisation. For example [mild spoilers: highlight to read], when Yejide has her first child, she recalls how Akin ‘spent his evenings singing made-up songs to Olamide and reading newspaper articles aloud to her… It was the most beautiful thing, watching my husband tell my daughter things she could not understand.’[end spoilers]

All this is to say that I thought I wouldn’t like Stay With Me, and I did, enormously. Like Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, the novel draws from Nigerian folktale both explicitly and implicitly, interweaving traditional stories into the narrative but also drawing its emotional strength from the underlying simplicity of its structure. When Yeijde climbs The Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles to seek miraculous help to get pregnant, we know that this decision is going to haunt her. And it does – but not in the way that we think. Three tragedies come to befall Yejide, each devastating, each blindsiding the reader as much as the characters. I think it should be acknowledged how difficult it is to make a reader feel a character’s pain in this way. I’ve read so many books where I feel I can intellectually acknowledge the awfulness of the events, but I’m struggling to truly connect. This goes double, for me, for novels that deal with relatively familiar fictional themes surrounding marriage and motherhood. But Stay With Me is heartbreaking. When we realise why the book is called what it is, it’s a moment of both beauty and pain.

I think the only other thing I can say without giving away more significant spoilers is that this isn’t a novel about fertility or marriage, not really, or about the everyday infringements of political instability which Adébáyò weaves expertly into the novel (while of course there’s a place for big sweeping political novels about civil war, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, which deals with the earlier Nigeria-Biafra civil war in the late 1960s, I really appreciated the way Adébáyò documented the little ways conflict touched the characters’ lives); it’s about motherhood and daughterhood. The ending is absolutely earnt, and Yejide and her story will indeed stay with me.

9781783782673In contrast, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing impressed me with its historical and political scope, but left me emotionally cold. I tried so hard with this book – it’s been received so well that I feel embarrassed for not getting it. And unlike Stay With Me, I was sure I would love it – but I just didn’t. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the blurb tells us, starts with ten-year-old Marie and her mother, who come from China but who are now living in Canada. In 1991, they welcome Ai-Ming, who is fleeing the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming is the daughter of a friend of Marie’s father – who has recently committed suicide – and it soon becomes clear that Marie’s family history, and especially her father’s story, is much more complicated than she suspected. As with Stay With Me, this elevator pitch for Do Not Say We Have Nothing is pretty misleading. Marie barely appears in the novel, acting as the linking thread in the present-day for the interlinked histories of Ai-Ming’s and Marie’s families. These stories start in the 1940s with Ai-Ming’s great-aunt and grandmother, Swirl and Big Mother, and move forward through later generations of the family into Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the horrors it unleashes.

Thien is clearly a fine and intelligent writer. There are a number of memorable political set-pieces in the novel. Her descriptions of the Tiananmen Square protests themselves are incredibly well done, as are the earlier scenes of public denunciations of renowned figures such as the composer He Luting. The questions the characters grapple with about what to believe or trust in such a climate, and what this does to their ability to think, are intellectually very interesting. But I didn’t engage with any of the cast. I found the shifting time-frames incredibly difficult to follow, and would have appreciated a family tree – although I recognise this would have spoilt some later twists. The patchwork nature of the novel makes thematic sense, reflecting the co-authorship, copying and reinvention of a manuscript that is passed around throughout the story, first emerging within the courtship of ‘Wen the Dreamer’ and Swirl. However, I felt like I was spending so much time trying to catch up with what was going on that I was never fully able to root my sympathies for any character in particular, despite the sufferings of the cast as a whole. (The ‘lyrical, nostalgic fog’ of prose that this review discusses expresses my feelings about the style of the novel much more eloquently!)

In this context, I want to talk about some of the trivial and circumstantial reasons we turn against certain novels, some of which originate from within the novel itself and some of which don’t. In the case of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the first is simple: I thought the novel was going to be about Marie and Ai-Ming. These two characters open the novel, lead the blurb, and are instantly intriguing. But they don’t appear on most of its pages. When the novel first flashed back to the early days of the Cultural Revolution, I assumed this would be a brief flashback positioned as part of Marie and Ai-Ming’s conversations. For this reason, I read it at a distance; it felt different to me than the early chapters from Marie’s first-person point of view. By the time I realised the novel’s structure was quite different, it felt too late to ‘catch up’ with the heart I should have put into those early sections. Secondly, music is central to the novel’s narrative, and I am not a musical person. Other equally good novels have not fared well with me for this reason (see: Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.) Finally, and silliest: I read this book alongside CE Morgan’s wonderful The Sport of Kings. The Sport of Kings I read was a giant hardback, whereas my copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing was a relatively compact paperback. So every day, I headed out to work, dying to read more of The Sport of Kings, but because I could only cram Do Not Say We Have Nothing into my backpack, I dutifully read through it over multiple bus journeys, never reading more than a bit at a time (unlike The Sport of Kings, which I ended up reading in huge gulps). This alone might explain my disconnection from the text. These things give me pause for thought about how subjective reviewing is – although I think there is something useful to be said about getting the readers’ sympathies in the right place from the outset, which for me, Do Not Say We Have Nothing didn’t manage.

Next up: The Sport of Kings and First Love.

Spring Reading Tag

51KTSiQPa8L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Taken from Elle Thinks.

1. What books are you most excited to read over the next few months? 

As usual, I have a small backlog of proofs: I still need to read Lisa McInerney’s The Blood Miracles and Colm Toibin’s House of Names, and I’ve also picked up a copy of Laline Paull’s The Ice. (I wasn’t a fan of her debut novel The Beesbut for reasons that were very particular to the story she’d chosen to tell – and I can never resist anything set in the Arctic or Antarctic.) I’m also very much looking forward to the fourth and last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of the Lost Child. As for books I’m yet to acquire, SO many, but especially Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims and Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers. In crime and thrillers, I’m most looking forward to Susie Steiner’s second novel, Persons Unknown, after loving her crime debut, Missing, Presumed.

2. What book most makes you think of Spring, for whatever reason?

I’m really struggling with this question! I can think of a plethora of summer, autumn and winter reads, but very little for spring. Perhaps Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley, a wonderful Beauty and the Beast retelling that is all about things coming back to life?

3. The days are getting longer – what is the longest book you’ve read?

I’ve no idea how this works out in terms of different translations etc., but my feeling is that it’s either Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Augustine’s City of God or Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. All are well over a thousand pages.

4. What books would you recommend to brighten someone’s day?

This obviously depends on the person, but Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is my top comfort read at the moment (and I know nothing about its two key themes: computer games and the 80s.)

232660475. Spring brings new life in nature – think up a book that doesn’t exist but you wish it did. (eg by a favourite author, on a certain theme or issue etc)

I used to read a lot of chick lit (as opposed to romance), and although I’ve rather gone off the genre in recent years, I still love really warm-hearted chick lit novels with great characters, like Nicola Doherty’s If I Could Turn Back Time, The Out of Office Girl and Girls on Tour. I’ve been thinking recently about how the gay male best friend has long been a staple of chick lit (at first, appearing in very stereotypical guises, but becoming more sensitively written in later years) but that lesbians or bisexual women never get a look in, even as background characters. (Bisexual men also rarely appear, and if they do, they are written as dangerous womanisers, men to avoid.) It strikes me that it would be brilliant to read a mainstream chick lit novel that fits in with all the genre conventions but is about a lesbian or bisexual woman. Apart from the main romantic plot line, chick lit already tends to deal heavily with relationships between women – conflict with a female boss, sub-plots with female friends or sisters – and it would be lovely to see this fully played out with a woman trying to find the woman of her dreams rather than the man. I would be rubbish at writing this, so I can’t have a go myself, but I wish somebody else would!

6. Spring is also a time of growth – how has your reading changed over the years?

Since records began (around the age of fourteen, when I began tallying all the books I’d read) there have been ups and downs. After getting seriously into adult fiction around the age of sixteen or so, the number of books I read every year dropped but the quality increased. I read more and more every year I was at university, culminating in my Best Reading Year Ever, 2008, when I read 119 books. After entering the world of work in 2009, and then embarking on a PhD, numbers dropped dramatically, and I’ve averaged around 80 ever since. In terms of what I read, I’ve steadily read classics and literary fiction throughout the years, but my ‘what I read when I’m tired’ reading has moved from chick lit (see above) to crime and thrillers, and is now moving more towards sci-fi.

7. We’re a couple of months into the new year – how’s your reading going?

One of the best things about 2017 so far for me is that I’m reading so much and enjoying it so much. I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I’d lost so much pleasure in reading since around 2009/10, and although of course I’ve read so many wonderful novels in the intervening years, I find I’m now coming to new books with a relish that I haven’t felt for a long time. My workload hasn’t significantly dropped, but I’ve already read 42 books this year, which means that I’m definitely going to smash that 80-ish average, and hopefully smash my target of 100 books in 2017. Can I beat THE BEST YEAR EVER? Probably not, but we’ll see…

9781909762299-wpcf_237x3608. Any plans you’re looking forward to over the next few months?

What I’ve read of the Baileys shortlist so far has hugely impressed me, so I can’t wait to get to the remaining three novels – Stay With Me, First Love and The Dark Circle (although I’m a little dubious about the last). I also still want to read the rest of the Jhalak Prize and Wellcome Prize shortlists – especially Irenosen Okojie’s Speak Gigantular, Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America, David Olusoga’s Black and British, and David France’s How To Survive A Plague.

‘Because they could’

The_PowerWhen I was thirteen or fourteen, I read a number of science fiction and fantasy young adult novels that imagined matriarchal worlds where women held political and societal power, rather than men. These worlds were not necessarily presented as utopias, but they were usually peaceful, co-operative and somewhat passive in the face of threat. Published in the 1980s and 1990s, novels such as Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985), and Jean Ure’s Come Lucky April (1992), already seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. Of course it was ridiculous to assume that women would rule any better than men, I thought. And why would you want to imagine such a world anyway? I devoured these novels, but regarded them with suspicion. I thought that I recognised them as part of a ‘feminist’ project that was itself out-of-date. (I’m not a feminist, I declared proudly at that age; basically, I was saying I’m not like other girls.) Concerns about gender had nothing to do with me and how I was going to live my life.

Most readers probably know the premise of The Power by now. Girls and women start to develop the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips. At first, this is regarded as a curiosity; then as an incipient threat; then as an existential crisis, especially as religious cults form around female religious leaders and women overthrow male-led governments. The book swaps between a number of viewpoints; Allie, who assumes the mantle of ‘Mother Eve’ and claims to perform miracles; Tunde, who starts off as a freelance reporter and soon finds himself being pulled into the unrest; Margot, running for state political office, and her daughter Jocelyn; Roxy, part of a family of organised criminals in Britain who, at the start of the novel, witnesses her mother murdered in front of her. These stories are tied together by a framing narrative that takes place thousands of years in the future, as a ‘male author’, Neil, presents them as an historical novel to his female mentor, Naomi. Channelling the Man Who Has It All, she  questions his conclusions about the world ‘before’: ‘I feel instinctively… that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

Other reviewers have rightly criticised The Power for its curious silence on the subject of race, and how race might intersect with this new gender order, especially as it features one black and one mixed-race protagonist whom you might expect to have thoughts on this. Given that it’s already bitten off more than it can chew, I can forgive the novel more easily for not engaging with other axes of oppression. I don’t see any reason why the premise of The Power requires the novel to engage with issues of sexuality, or with trans issues, for example. As ever, I’d like to see more – or indeed any! – important gay, bi, lesbian or trans characters, but the omission is no more glaring here than in many other novels. Indeed, my main criticism of it would not be that it isn’t intersectional enough, but that it doesn’t take into account all the reasons for women’s gendered oppression. In physical terms, women are not solely oppressed as a sex class because they are physically weaker than men, but because they carry, bear and often nurse children. (Helen Sedgwick’s new novel, The Growing Seasonout in September, promises to explore a world where men can have babies, and I’m hugely looking forward to what feels to me like an exploration of the other ‘half’ of The Power’s conceit.)

Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation. All this would feel much less problematic if the book simply lacked its framing narrative, which is where we see a gender-flipped world, and overall, I’m not convinced that the framing narrative adds very much. It introduces problems (surely The Power would be written very differently if it was an historical novel from thousands of years in the future? Wouldn’t there be more explanations for its ‘modern’ readers, and less explanation about things the writer would assume they’d know?) and doesn’t solve any. It recalls The Handmaid’s Tale a little too obviously. And yet, despite these issues, I already feel convinced that The Power will remain with me for a very long time.

It’s clear from the start that The Power is not going to be about a matriarchal utopia. And yet, I suspect my teenage self would still have held it at arm’s-length, because it makes it clear that sex, and its constructed counterpart, gender, both matter. A number of reviews of The Power have suggested that ultimately, it’s not really about gender, but about power itself. I’m not sure that’s the case: I think that the novel is about both gender and sex. Alderman seems to me to be interested in the power that men hold over women as a biological sex class. In other words, she’s concerned less with socially constructed ideas about gender, and more about the physical reality of the average man’s physical superiority over the average woman. The unreality of gender norms is demonstrated by the ease with which ‘female’ characteristics – such as emotional behaviour, caring personalities and the sexual double standard – are handed over to men once they are subjugated by women. Of course, we might argue that many of these things, such as the ability to nurture and support, are not undesirable at all, but made so by the unequal burden of emotional labour they require from women. And of course, that’s right. This, I think, is precisely the point that Alderman is trying to make; as she says in her excellent interview at The Writes Of Women, ‘of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence… So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor. Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ 

The crucial conversation comes near the end of the novel:

One of them says, “Why did they do it …?”

And the other answers, “Because they could.”

That is the only answer there ever is.

Given its acknowledgement of the reality of the subjugation of women, and hence the importance of feminism, my teenage self would have wanted to run a mile from this novel as well. It’s that, more than anything, that suggests to me how important The Power is, even if its exploration of the world it’s created is necessarily incomplete.

***

An aside. At the beginning of 2016, I started a re-read project, where I planned to re-read classic books I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion had changed. I ultimately only got around to re-reading one novel (To Kill A Mockingbird) and decided that, basically, it hadn’t. However, reading The Power has inspired me to add The Handmaid’s Tale to the list. I’ve never been a big Atwood fan, but my skewed views on feminism as a teenager may have unfairly biased me against the novel, which I hated as a fifteen-year-old. Watch this space!