Literary Fiction in Late Spring

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Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise is one of those books I’d heard a great deal about before I picked it up, and I was so intrigued that I put it on my ideal longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (to be honest, even though I didn’t like it, I still wish that it had been longlisted, as it would have shaken things up a bit). The first half of the novel immerses us in heated teen drama at a performing arts school in Houston, focusing on an on/off relationship between students Sarah and David, but also suggesting that a number of the staff are unable to maintain professional boundaries. Afterwards, it does the kind of structural flip that novels like Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry pull off so beautifully – but here, I don’t think it works. I felt completely disengaged from both halves of the novel, and while I can see that Choi is posing questions about who gets to control the narrative, I just didn’t find them very interesting. If anything, after the perspective switches, the side we should take is too obvious and there isn’t enough left for the reader to wrestle with. In one sense, I felt this was an ultra-literary take on a problem that genre writers have been engaging with for decades: who engages the reader’s sympathies and how can writers play with that? It’s also a #MeToo novel, once again written before #MeToo (this interview with Choi is really worth reading, though it has significant spoilers for Trust Exercise) but published at a time when I’m starting to feel that a straightforward take on these themes is becoming too familiar. I loved the idea of a novel called Trust Exercise that demands time and patience from its readers, but I didn’t feel I was repaid.

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I’m not having a lot of luck with experimental literary fiction recently, because Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel didn’t work for me either, although I admired her A Girl Is A Half-Formed ThingLike McBride’s debut, Strange Hotel excels at tracing the precise shifts in a woman’s thought processes; however, her protagonist here is not the chaotic young narrator of Girl but a relatively older woman, in her mid-thirties, who is travelling from hotel room to hotel room in a number of different cities. Her own relationship with herself is much more detached and ironic, and the prose reflects this: ‘She drinks [the wine] down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue… That’s it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench – the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice.’ McBride knows how we become different people when alone in unfamiliar hotel rooms, and the first quarter of the book could be a brilliant short story. There are hints of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation in how this woman secludes herself from the world and seeks the optimum state of intoxication. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it any further, because I couldn’t face spending any more time with the protagonist’s convoluted and depressing voice. I’ll be checking out McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, instead.

Although I found these two novels disappointing, I’ve not had a bad time with all literary fiction this month – I’m completely immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Lightwhich I think is the best of the Cromwell trilogy, and am now almost halfway through! Review to come once I finish, but I’m deliberately taking my time.

Have you read any good literary novels recently?

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2020

I have now read fifteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and, having read Hilary Mantel’s previous two Cromwell novels, I have a pretty clear idea of how The Mirror and The Light is going to pan out. (I didn’t want to rush through it before the longlist was announced, but I have a beautiful hardback copy waiting for me!) THEREFORE, it’s time to present my own personal shortlist wish list. Which is:

Honourable mention: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

This is a strange set of picks for me, because books that I thought definitely wouldn’t be strong enough to make the shortlist when it was first announced (e.g. Queenie, Djinn Patrol) have risen up the ranks simply because many of the other longlisted titles were so disappointing. This is definitely the weakest Women’s Prize longlist I’ve read since I seriously started following the Prize, and not only that, it’s depressingly repetitive; too many family sagas, too many books about women, war and rape, another classical retelling.

Nevertheless, the six books above are all solid reads that I’d enthusiastically recommend, and here’s why I chose each of them:

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel. As I admitted above, I have not yet read this third instalment in her Tudor trilogy, but it’s going to be EPIC. I reviewed Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. We all know this is an excellent novel, narrated by twelve black* British* women (*one of whom identifies as non-binary, one of whom believes herself to be white), and telling the long histories of black people and of black feminism in Britain. I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the longlist.

Weather by Jenny Offill. I was unexpectedly blown away by this slender book that follows Lizzie, a librarian who is musing fearfully and hilariously about the future. Offill writes brilliantly, but she also traces Lizzie’s thought processes with terrifying skill.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. This compelling narrative jumps between Singapore during the Second World War and at the beginning of the twenty-first century to tell the harrowing but humanised story of Wang Di, who is forced into sex slavery in a Japanese military brothel.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. Narrated by a nine-year-old boy who lives in the slums of New Delhi, this debut novel has some flaws, but it ultimately won me over with its clever use of urban legend and its devastating emotional impact. This is one of the few novels on the longlist that I won’t forget.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Billed as a fun read, this debut has unexpected depths as it deals with the misogynoir Queenie experiences as she looks for love as a young black woman in London. It satisfyingly reinvents the chick lit genre, and its witty originality puts it streets ahead of most of the longlist.

However, what I want to see shortlisted isn’t necessarily what I actually think will be shortlisted, so, regardless of my personal preferences, here are six predictions:

My logic, in order of certainty:

  • I think both The Mirror and The Light and Girl, Woman, Other are dead certs. I know that Girl, Woman, Other already won the Booker, but given that this was somewhat overshadowed by Evaristo’s controversial joint win with Atwood, I think the Women’s Prize will leap at the chance to recognise her again. And it’s a great book!
  • I’m almost as certain that Hamnet will be shortlisted. I think the Women’s Prize are belatedly waking up to the fact that they’ve ignored Maggie O’Farrell all these years, and this novel has received a lot of critical acclaim and attention.
  • Weather is so painfully relevant, and its length sets off the blockbusters on this list nicely. It’s also very obviously different to a lot of the other longlistees.
  • I wasn’t a huge fan of Dominicanabut after the furore over American Dirt, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prize wanted to honour a Latina writer.
  • I hate family sagas, but the judges clearly love them, so at least one will be on the shortlist. As there are quite a few big hitters on this imagined shortlist, they might be tempted to go for something that’s more left-field than The Dutch House or Fleishman Is In Trouble, and I wonder if that might be Red At The Bone, even though I thought it was completely forgettable.

Edit 22/4/20: The actual shortlist is here!

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First thoughts: I’m extremely chuffed to have predicted five out of six of the shortlistees, which is my best hit rate ever for any prize list. I’m obviously less pleased that only three of the titles I wanted made it to the shortlist, especially as this had the corollary of making this a less diverse shortlist than last year’s. In particular, I think Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared was cheated of a spot, especially as I feel like it deserves more attention.

However, I’m not devastated to see any of these titles on the shortlist. (I would have been very cross if any of Girl, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone or The Most Fun We Ever Had had made it). I’m closest to being annoyed about the presence of A Thousand Ships, which I thought had serious structural problems, despite some very strong individual chapters. I also think that it would have had to have been superb to justify the Prize shortlisting another Greek myth retelling, and it really isn’t. But I guess my biggest misgiving about this book is that it’s so on-the-nose about how it wants to ‘tell the untold story of the women of the Trojan war’, which is (a) not untold, even by classical authors (b) often not actually told by this novel, e.g. Penelope’s chapters focus on Odysseus, and (c) not really something I want to see the Women’s Prize rewarding, because I want to read great fiction by women, not fiction that won’t let us forget about its Important Feminist Purpose. But having said that, A Thousand Ships is certainly not devoid of literary merit.

The other thing about this shortlist is that it feels like there are only three books from it that can actually win the Prize, which is a bit weird. I’d be amazed if anything other than The Mirror and the Light, Girl, Woman, Other or Hamnet took it in September. Personally, I’ll be backing one of the first two.

 I’ll post again once I’ve read The Mirror and The Light with my final ranking order and hopes/predictions for the winner.

What do you think of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist?

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My reviews of the fifteen titles I’ve read can be found at these links: Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; WeatherFleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Bone; The Most Fun We Ever Had.

I’ve really enjoyed reading along this year with other bloggers who are following the Women’s Prize, especially Callum, Rachel, Hannah, EmilyMarija and Gilana

Quotidian horrors: The Bass Rock

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Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock was probably my most eagerly anticipated title of the last couple of years. Her second novel, All The Birds, Singingwith its insanely clever backwards structure, was one of my top ten books of the decade; I put The Bass Rock on my4.5 star challenge before it even had a cover because I was so sure I was going to love it. So, perhaps it could never have lived up to such high expectations, and yet I do feel a little disappointed. Before I go any further, I should say that The Bass Rock is absolutely a good novel, and it was utterly cheated by not making the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist (especially given the dubious quality of many of the titles that were longlisted). Wyld is an incredible writer, and, line-by-line, there is nothing about this book that is a letdown. However, it’s made me reflect on what I want from a novel that is really going to blow me away: and I guess I’ve concluded that I put a higher premium on originality – both in terms of structure, and content – than perhaps other readers do. Quite apart from the brilliant structural tricks that Wyld played in All The Birds, I loved its unusual setting – the protagonist, a woman called Jake, spends a good chunk of the novel as a sheep-shearer in the Australian outback – and the way that Wyld experiments with horror tropes. Nevertheless, The Bass Rock totally succeeds in everything that it sets out to do, and it is a bit unfair to be cross at it simply because it isn’t All The Birds.

The Bass Rock, like its predecessor, also takes a slightly experimental structure; the vast majority of the novel is divided between three narratives, linked by place rather than by person. Viv, in the present day, is house-sitting in the shadow of the Bass Rock, a looming presence off the Scottish coast. Ruth, in the 1950s, has just moved into the same house, navigating her relationship with Peter and his two teenage sons, who are having a turbulent time at boarding school. Finally, in the early 1700s, a woman flees for her life into the surrounding woods after she is accused of being a witch. Usually, novels that use dual or triple narratives tie them together tightly – a common trope (much disliked by me) is the person researching their family history – but, although certain links emerge, Wyld is brave enough to let these three strands stand in parallel. While I thought this aspect of the novel worked, I still found that I was constantly wishing to return to Ruth’s story, which felt by far the strongest of the three. I hate to say it, but aimless millennial narrators like Viv are starting to irritate me; she’s an old millennial, but she still fits into a groove that I feel has become increasingly worn. Meanwhile, the early modern witch-hunt felt flat and familiar.

It’s when we’re spending time with Ruth that the book really shines; the way that it traces the quotidian trauma of male violence, and how easily it can become an everyday experience. While all three stories are, of course, concerned with patriarchal power, its threads are seen most clearly in the mundane horrors of Ruth’s world; the predatory local vicar, the boys’ abusive boarding school, how Ruth’s own husband quietly oppresses her, the silencings and smothering of other girls and women. Somehow, Wyld manages to nail not just how violence works but how we come to take it for granted. She doesn’t allow us to judge these characters from outside (of course he’s an abuser; of course that’s rape) but forces us to enter into their heads and understand how difficult it is for them to see things clearly. Her take on this theme is one of the best that I’ve ever seen in fiction, and that alone makes The Bass Rock worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: A Thousand Ships

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There are so many ways of telling a war: the entire conflict can be encapsulated in just one incident. One man’s anger at the behaviour of another, say… But this is the women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the Trojan War and its aftermath through the voices of myriad women on both sides of the conflict, struggles under the weight of its own good intentions. First of all, the book is much too aware of what it’s trying to do, and Haynes can’t resist the temptation to use Calliope, the ‘muse’ of the famous opening lines of the Iliad (‘Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles’) to tell us why these female voices are important. The quote above is just one example of Calliope awkwardly spelling out what was already effectively communicated through the framing of this story. Second, because Haynes wants to fracture the narrative through multiple women rather than focus on a few, the novel too often feels directionless and choppy. This can be a common risk when dealing with retellings of myths and legends (I also found Madeline Miller’s Circe too episodic, although overall it is a more interesting novel). Because women are only prominent in a few of the surviving texts, Haynes has to spread her net wide to catch her narrators, and this makes the book’s scope too big – we cover the entire siege of Troy and the full Odyssey, alongside extra stories from less well-known texts, such as the tale of the Amazon Penthesilea.

And thirdly… Pat Barker’s far superior The Silence of the Girls, which also retells the siege of Troy and which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize last year, was criticised for turning away from its female narrator, Briseis, for long periods of time to focus on Achilles, but now I’ve read A Thousand Ships, I’m even more convinced that Barker made the right narrative choices. Because women are simply not present for many of the key events of the Iliad and the Odyssey, this book contains a lot of awkward, compressed narration where characters tell us about events that they didn’t witness themselves. Sometimes, this works. Near the end of the novel, Haynes gets very clever with the prophetess Cassandra, who has been somewhat under-utilised up to this point, and uses her gift of foretelling the future to allow her to watch events as if she is replaying a film (‘Cassandra gave a low moan. This part always made her sick’). Indeed, if this whole novel had been narrated from Cassandra’s perspective, it could have been quite the ride.

But because most of the characters don’t possess Cassandra’s supernatural abilities, this narrative trick usually fails. I especially disliked the Odyssey narrated as a series of letters from Penelope to Odysseus, with Penelope retelling her husband’s exploits having heard about them second-hand through a bard. It’s bad enough that Penelope is an incredibly annoying narrator, with too many ‘witty’ proto-feminist asides (‘Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in her [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband, and such behaviour would be beneath you’) but, on reflection, I started to think that this narrative undermined the point of this book. If women at home are as important as men at war, why didn’t Haynes focus on Penelope’s trials, and ignore what Odysseus is up to?

Haynes gave herself a mammoth task, and while I’m impressed by her ambition, I wasn’t sure that she chose the correct structure to support her book. She delivers some brilliant set-piece chapters, but I couldn’t get on board with this novel as a whole, largely because it felt too meta, too self-aware, and too convinced that it’s doing something more original than it actually is.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number nine. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; and How We Disappeared.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Dominicana

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It’s 1965, and Ana Canción is fifteen years old when she enters into an arranged marriage that will transport her from the Dominican Republic to New York, and offers the chance that her family will be able to follow her there. Ana does not love her new and much older husband, Juan; he beats her, rapes her, and resists letting her leave their apartment, even to access free English classes. Nevertheless, Ana reaches out to her new world as far as she can, befriending one of Juan’s female debtors, Marisela, and talking to the pigeons who live outside her window. When political unrest in the Dominican Republic forces Juan to return to protect his assets, the radius of Ana’s world dramatically expands; suddenly, alongside Juan’s attractive younger brother César, she is dreaming of starting her own food business and selling pastelitos at the World’s Fair. However, what will happen when Juan comes back?

Angie Cruz writes in the afterword to Dominicana that ‘This novel was inspired by my mother’s story… When I told my mother back in 2005 I would write a novel inspired by her, she said, Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It’s so typical. And yet, stories like my mother’s, although common, are rarely represented in the mainstream narratives available to us. I am grateful for the opportunity to publish this singular story, knowing very well that so many writers who are women of color do not have this privilege and access.’ Cruz is, in one sense, absolutely right. I’ve read nothing about the Dominican Republic before and knew nothing about the community of Dominicanas that formed in New York City from the 1950s onwards and which is beautifully documented here.

Cruz writes vividly about Ana’s life and language, and although her prose can be a little cringeworthy while describing Ana’s experience of sexual desire (Rachel picks out some good examples in her review), this didn’t dominate my experience of reading the novel as a whole (I wondered if this purple prose reflected the telenovelas that Ana consumes). In general, I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman, and her ability to continue exploring and hoping, as in her friendship with Marisela, who exploits her naivety but also gives her a different way to frame her relationship with Juan. After Marisela jokes with her about men, she scripts a different kind of imaginary conversation with her husband: ‘I fall to the sofa, feet in the air. Ana, go get me a drink! Hurry! Where’s my dinner? What’s taking you so long? Ana! Ana! Ana! Oh Juan, get your own stupid drink! I say to the hat on the table, then laugh.’ Ana can’t easily escape her abuse, but Cruz conveys how she builds up an inner resilience that enables her later (if limited) rebellion.

Nevertheless, while the raw materials of this story may be fresh, the literary model that Cruz has chosen is painfully familiar. Dominicana maps out the precise story beats of so many other novels about immigration to the United States that I’ve read, and so it becomes very predictable (not helped by the fact that the blurb summarises pretty much all of the plot!). While the narrative comes to life in a way that other versions of this narrative don’t (for example, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers), I became frustrated by this very limited coming-of-age framing. The novel already cheats slightly by jumping out of Ana’s first-person voice to give us glimpses of Juan, and I felt that this story might have been much more thought-provoking had we not been confined to Ana’s head. I would have loved to have read more from Juan, who intricately justifies his treatment of Ana and his affair with another woman, and perhaps to explore the perspective of Ana’s mother, who pushes her daughter into this marriage to benefit her family. These perspectives would also have allowed us to see more of the Dominican Republic rather than the typical New York 60s setting. On reflection, I found my enthusiasm for this book waning as I read on.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number six. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; and Nightingale Point.

Leap Year Science Fiction, 2020*

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I adored The Calculating Stars, the first novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s  Lady Astronaut series. (If you want to get a taste of the style of this series, there are a number of short stories available online – I’d suggest starting with ‘Articulated Restraint’, which indeed I would advise everyone to read before getting too deep into the series). The series is reminiscent of Michael Grant’s YA alternate WWII trilogy Front Lines, in that it takes a big event in modern American history and writes women back into the story not only by uncovering the hidden contributions of women at the time but by explicitly changing the facts so that women were equal participants. In The Calculating Stars, we’re offered an alternative version of the development of space exploration in the US; after a huge meteorite hits the earth in 1952, the space programme is accelerated to find new places for humans to live in the universe, and some women become serious contenders for astronaut training due to their flying experience in the Second World War. The novel is narrated by Elma Yorke, a brilliant mathematician who is keen to be one of the first women into space, and her voice is light, funny and so incredibly readable. I wrote on Twitter that I’d never read a post-apocalyptic novel that’s so comforting, and I stand by those comments.

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The Fated Sky, the sequel to The Calculating Stars, was in some ways more of the same, but didn’t quite work as well for me, although I still very much enjoyed reading it. The Fated Sky jumps forward into the 1960s, and rightly makes issues of race much more prominent than they were in the first novel; however, I felt that Kowal struggled to know how to handle Elma’s interactions with her fellow astronauts of colour within the stylistic parameters she set for herself in the first novel. Kowal wants to show us that Elma, as a white woman in the post-war US, would likely be ignorant and insensitive on matters of race despite her good intentions, and in that she succeeds, but only through a series of repetitive scenes where Elma gets things wrong and black characters put her right (the novel also features significant Hispanic and Taiwanese characters, but it tends to be the African-American characters doing the heavy lifting in these conversations, especially the one prominent black woman, which is worrying in itself). The overall effect is that of a tick-box take on ‘diversity’ that makes Elma difficult to like – maybe we shouldn’t like her, but if we don’t, the books don’t work!

Kowal also missteps, quite badly, in her handling of gay and trans characters [highlight for spoiler] The book reproduces the Bury Your Gays trope, which is pretty unforgivable in 2019, especially as it also resorts to the cliched device of only having the other characters realise that the two men concerned were actually a couple after one of them is killed. It also technically features a trans man, but handles this in a very peculiar way. There is nothing to suggest the character is trans in the text – he is referred to as she throughout – but Kowal reveals in the author’s note that she has misgendered this character because Elma, our narrator, doesn’t know he is trans. To me, this is not really representation and is akin to JK Rowling proclaiming ‘Dumbledore is gay’ despite writing nothing about it in the actual texts. Also, I understand that Kowal was concerned about historical accuracy here, but this is an alternate history that is pretty light-touch – I didn’t think it would have felt jarring to have this character come out, even if he had used terms that are less familiar to a modern audience to describe his experience.[end spoiler] It all feels a bit like Kowal was trying and worrying about this too hard and didn’t have the courage of her convictions. However, I’m still a big fan of this series, and am looking forward to the third in the quartet, The Relentless Moon.

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In a very different corner of the science fiction universe, I read Adrian Tchaikovsky’s hard SF sequel to Children of TimeChildren of Ruin. When I reviewed Children of Time last year, I wrote that ‘I couldn’t shake the sense that this was 600 pages of set-up for the next novel in the series’ and I’m pleased to say that I was right; Children of Ruin worked much better for me than Children of Time, although I think this could have been accomplished with much less preamble. To recap: Children of Time followed two plot threads. In the first, the remnants of humanity are using stasis machines to travel for centuries looking for habitable planets to terraform after the destruction of Earth; in the second, another group of now long-dead humans have introduced an evolutionary virus into a species of spider on a distant planet, which is now slowly developing towards sentience. I found the first novel frustrating because it seemed to take so long for the spider civilisation to get to a point where they could make contact with humanity on an equal level, and this inevitable confrontation only takes place at the very end of the novel. But because of this, Children of Ruin hits the ground running, showing us how humans and spiders have now allied in a search for new worlds. This book is also divided between two plotlines, one in the past and one in the present, but this time, I found both equally fascinating, and I loved how this sequel amped up the horror elements that were inchoate in the first book. Tchaikovsky returns to questions about inter-species communication by inventing a race of sentient octopuses, but evolutionary biology doesn’t dominate the book as it did in Children of Time, which means that the plot has a lot more direction and the ideas that Tchaikovsky is playing with have more immediate implications for his characters.

I also read the sixth book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, Babylon’s Ashesthis month, but the last few books of this series have blended together for me – I’m HOPING this was the one where they finally solved the race for the Iron Throne interplanetary political conflict so they can get on with facing the much more horrific threat from the Others protomolecule.

Finally, this is not science fiction, but I loved Jean McNeil’s intricate and contemplative memoir Ice Diaries, which recounts the four months she spent as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica, and found that it echoed the themes of these novels in its consideration of how humans seek out empty places only to find either that those places don’t want us or that we are already there.

Have you read any science fiction or speculative fiction recently?

*I obviously didn’t read all of these from start to finish on the 29th February, but the leap year gave me extra reading time to finish several of them off!

Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2020

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has been announced! Here are my thoughts:

The Ones I’ve Read

  • Deepa Anappara, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. I’m pretty chuffed that I managed to predict that this novel narrated by a nine-year-old boy who lives in a Delhi slum where children keep going missing would make the Women’s Prize longlist. While I had some reservations about Djinn Patrol – I found the child narrator a little generically chirpy – there’s no denying that it has a vivid sense of place and packs an emotional punch. I reviewed it here.
  • Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie. This smart, funny novel about a twenty-five-year-old British-Jamaican woman from an uber-contemporary Brixton seeking love and fulfilment is a welcome addition to the longlist, although I doubt that it has enough weight to deserve shortlisting. I reviewed it here.
  • Angie Cruz, Dominicana. I’m reading this at the moment, so I will reserve final judgment, but I was surprised by how fresh this story of a teenager from the Dominican Republic who enters into a marriage of convenience to move to New York in the 1960s feels. Based on the life story of Cruz’s mother, which she felt was too unexceptional to be worth telling, I’m looking forward to seeing how this novel develops.
  • Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other. After its controversial tied Booker win, I was sure that this novel was a dead cert for the Women’s Prize longlist. And it deserves to be here – Evaristo’s polyphonic novel told through the voices of twelve black British women (with some caveats) is a brilliant reflection on, among other things, the histories of black activism and black feminism in Britain. I reviewed it here.
  • Ann Patchett, The Dutch House. Two siblings are haunted by their childhood home in post-war Philadelphia, which was taken away from them by their stepmother. This isn’t Patchett’s best – I found it a bit familiar and underwhelming. I reviewed it here.

The Ones I Already Wanted To Read

  • Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light. I thought this would be a year for big names, and so it proves. The third in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy has been hugely anticipated for years. Controversially, I had lukewarm feelings about Wolf Hall but I loved Bring Up The Bodiesso I was always going to read this one anyway.
  • Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet. I’m a big O’Farrell fan, and I loved her last two books, I Am, I Am, I Am and This Must Be The Placeso this was always going to be on my list (indeed, it was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2020). I’m proceeding with caution, however, because I’ve always found O’Farrell less successful as a historical novelist (The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Instructions for A Heatwave) and this is so far outside her proven territory, exploring the hidden story of Shakespeare’s son.
  • Anne Enright, Actress. I haven’t got on particularly well with Anne Enright in the past (although to be fair I have only read The Gathering) but I stuck this on my Goodreads TBR recently after Mr B’s bookshop sent me an ebullient email about it. Unusually, I was sold by the cover, which reminds me of Maddy Prior’s great song ‘Woman In The Wings’. I’m also in the mood for more 1960s Hollywood glamour after re-reading Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

  • Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Fleishman is in Trouble. After the hype, I’d been dithering over this one for some time and had ultimately decided against it, but I’m not averse to giving it a try. This looks like it starts with the most cliched of literary fiction plots – a Manhattan couple are undergoing a bitter divorce! – but hopefully takes this premise to some more interesting places. I’m very wary of the term ‘comic novel’, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for now.
  • Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships. Another classical retelling! we all shouted. And not only that, but a novel that Anna James thinks is basically Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls but with more female voices – it tells the story of the siege of Troy from the women’s point of view. While I don’t understand why this was longlisted, I’m actually quite happy to read it. I was pretty underwhelmed by Haynes’s adult debut, The Amber Fury, which was a bit sub-Secret History, but it sounds like her more straightforward retellings might be stronger.
  • Jacqueline Woodson, Red At The Bone. I’d taken a look at this and decided not to prioritise it – I didn’t find the premise especially interesting (it’s an intergenerational US black family drama centring around a teenage pregnancy). But it’s short, and I haven’t read Woodson before, so I’d like to give her writing a try.
  • Jing-Jing Lee, How We Disappeared. I’m intrigued by this Singapore-set novel, which moves between the Second World War and the turn of the millennium to tell the story of a woman surviving a Japanese military brothel.
  • Luan Goldie, Nightingale Point. This was the only book I hadn’t heard of before it made the longlist. Its premise – six people caught up in the Amsterdam air disaster of 1992 – strikes me as risky; it takes a skilled writer to pull off this kind of interweaving of lives. But if it works, it could be incredible.

The Ones I Just Don’t Want To Read (But Probably Will)

  • Jenny Offill, Weather. Three strikes against this one: I don’t like novellas, I don’t think I’ll get on with Offill’s prose, and I try to steer clear of fiction about climate anxiety, unless it’s bringing something really new to the table.
  • Claire Lombardo, The Most Fun We Ever Had. Yet another novel I had considered and rejected, this focuses on a large extended family in Chicago over the course of fifty years. I’m just not a fan of intergenerational family dramas, and there seem to be a LOT on this list.
  • Edna O’Brien, Girl. Ugh, I don’t know why I’m so uninterested in this book, but I’m really not interested at all. Set in Nigeria, it follows a girl who is kidnapped by jihadist group Boko Haram. I haven’t read anything by O’Brien before, but this sounds like a bit of a departure.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

This year, I don’t feel any sense of burning injustice for any of the omitted titles, but I would have really liked to see Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age and Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock, as I’m much keener to read them than many of the titles that have been longlisted. And while I didn’t think Tea Obreht’s Inland was a perfect book, I’d have longlisted it over The Dutch House, especially as The Dutch House is YET ANOTHER FAMILY DRAMA.

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On The Longlist

Thank God, no Ducks, Newburyport, because I didn’t want to read it in a few weeks. I’m also very pleased that The Testaments is absent. Indeed, there’s limited crossover from the Booker Prize (the only 2020-eligible title that’s on both lists is Evaristo), and given that I didn’t really get on with the 2019 Booker longlist (the ONLY book from it I read and liked was Evaristo), this is good news for me!

What are your thoughts on the Women’s Prize longlist for 2020?