Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Creatures of Passage

Nephthys Kinwell drives a sky-blue 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, haunted by the occasional thump of the ghost of a white girl in the trunk. She ferries lost souls across the Anacostia neighbourhood of Washington DC in 1977, helped by the fact that her car never breaks down or needs refuelling. Nephthys is haunted by the violent death of her twin brother Osiris; they were born conjoined at the finger (best to treat this as fantasy: conjoined twins cannot be different sexes, as they are always genetically identical, and this type of conjoining also seems unlikely) and she does not feel complete without him. Her niece Amber has the power to predict deaths, and when she has a dream about her son, Dash, Nephthys fears for his fate. Meanwhile, child abuser Mercy, the caretaker at the local school, stalks this troubled kingdom.

Creatures of Passage, Morowa Yejidé’s second novel, draws heavily on Ancient Egyptian mythology. I was familiar with the story of Isis and Osiris but hadn’t realised that Nephthys was their sister, and that she helped Isis to bring Osiris back from the dead after his murder and dismemberment. In some accounts she is also the mother of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death who oversaw the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ in the Egyptian journey to the underworld. Egyptian Books of the Dead map routes to the underworld that involve fearful obstacles such as a lake of fire, giving the deceased a series of spells to recite so they can pass safely. A ferryman also carries the souls of the dead into the underworld. Yejidé uses this imagery throughout the novel, including the use of ancient language such as ‘kingdoms’ and ‘kings’ to describe the United States. Certain incidents bring this mythological resonance together hauntingly and beautifully: most notably, the murder of Osiris.

Unfortunately, for much of this novel, the voice that Yejidé cultivates simply did not work for me, on both a structural level and line-by-line. Creatures of Passage is deliberately repetitive and circular, as indicated by the childhood song that is repeated by both Nephthys and Osiris: ‘Indigo swirlin’ round de vat/No beginnin’ and no end…’ Both siblings also repeat certain phrases, such as ‘the unbearable inertia of one’ and ‘the interstellar cold of his solitude’, a tic that drove me increasingly mad as the novel went on. This was perhaps especially irritating because these phrases, like much of the rest of the text, felt mannered and pretentious. Yejidé chooses complex language even when things could be said much more simply. Describing the death of a pregnant woman: ‘As the woman moved from one plane of existence to another, the preborn lay quiet in her amniotic water, listening to the sound of her progenitor’s heartbeat slowing to a stop.’ One line like this might work, but the accumulation of them is very wearing, even if it’s in keeping with the mood of the novel. There are flashes of brilliant writing – ‘the cherry-blossom flecked currents of the Tidal Basin; the shallow majesty of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool; the slushy inflow of the McMillan Reservoir; the black tranquility of the Georgetown canal; the rolling deep of the Potomac River’ – but even these get diluted by being repeated.

I genuinely admire what Yejidé was trying to do with this novel, but it did not work well for me, especially because all this is anchored by a rather thin plot that centres on child abuse, a prominent theme in the Women’s Prize longlist this year but one which is difficult to handle in fiction. Probably my biggest disappointment from the list, and I doubt it will be shortlisted.

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. This is number eleven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, CarelessThe Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev , Build Your House Around My Body, The Bread The Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss.

20 Books of Summer, #19 and #20: Home Remedies and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Xuan Juliana Wang’s debut collection of short stories, Home Remedies, was on my list of books to read in 2020. The collection is split into three sections, ‘Family’, ‘Love’ and ‘Time’, though I wasn’t sure this division was necessary, as while the stories do fall into certain groups, they don’t mirror these themes. Wang showcases her versatility by writing in a number of different registers. One lot of stories – ‘Days of Being Mild’ – ‘Fuerdai to the Max’ – are told in first-person and focus on young Chinese people living either in China or in the US who are pursuing the kind of unfocused millennial existence that has been explored in a fair amount of fiction, living in large houseshares, making art and having messy relationships. Another lot – ‘Mott Street in July’ – ‘White Tiger of the West’ – adopt a more distant third-person register and explore generational dynamics with reference to more traditional Chinese ways of life. We also have a couple with the kind of cutesy, clever titles that I can’t deal with at all – ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening-Ailments’ – ‘Algorithmic Problem-Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships’ – that impose certain structures, such as a list of remedies or algorithms, on their narratives in a way that looks clever but always ends up being so reductive. It’s not surprising that the best story in the collection, ‘Vaulting the Sea’, which considers the relationship between two young male synchronised divers who represent China in international competitions, doesn’t fit into any of these slots. However, although I appreciated its sympathetic development of one young man’s feelings for the other, it concludes with an image that underlines the symbolism of the story far too obviously. This sits in contrast to the majority of the stories in this collection, which go too far the other way and simply trail off with no sense of resolution. I really wanted to like this more, and I know several bloggers whose opinions I trust are big fans, but I found it bland and disappointing.

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Olga Tokarczuk’s seventh novel, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, attracted a shed-load of positive critical attention from English-speaking reviewers and bloggers after its translation into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2019 (it was originally published in Polish in 2009). Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize for Literature win in 2018 meant her literary stardom was assured. Drive Your Plow… is an undoubtedly bizarre novel held together by an incredible narrative voice. Our narrator is Janina Duszejko, an elderly woman living in an isolated Polish village; when her neighbour is murdered in the middle of winter, she sets out to discover the reasons behind his death. However, this is no murder mystery but a much more metaphysical exploration of questions about what makes us human. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of novel that I will just never get on with personally, even though I was tempted into trying it by the glowing reviews. I loved how vividly Janina was drawn but found the whole enterprise too surreal and disparate to really commit to this fictional world. The folk-tale feel of the first chapter was also more evocative for me, and I felt further distanced when Janina comes into crunching contact with modernity a bit later on. Drive Your Plow… is a divisive read, but it’s an impressive novel that must also have been horribly difficult to translate. And at least I’ve read something that counts towards #WomenInTranslation month!

20 Books of Summer is almost over! How are you getting on with the challenge, if you decided to do it?

I’ll post my usual 20 Books of Summer retrospective on Tuesday 1st of September.