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?

#ReadingWomen: Past Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, Part Two

I’ve now read the last two Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I had remaining (one, Larry’s Party, I’d technically read before, but I remembered so little about it I decided to start from scratch). This means I have officially finished the #ReadingWomen challenge! I’ll be posting my ranking of all twenty-five Women’s Prize for Fiction winners before the 1st November, when the Women’s Prize will announce their Winner of Winners.

So, what did I think of the last two on the list?

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I read Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, which won the Orange Prize in 2001, as a buddy read with Rebecca at Bookish Beck. It tells the story of two misfits, Douglas and Harley, who meet in the tiny Australian town of Karakarook. Douglas is an engineer who has been sent to demolish the town’s rickety bridge; Harley is a museum curator who has been sent to preserve the region’s rural heritage. Both strangers in the community, single and lonely, they are set on a personal as well as a professional collision course. Grenville is brilliant at making the most mundane moments feel incredibly tense, whether it’s Douglas’s inability to break social convention by speaking up when he’s being driven far too fast through the outback, or Harley’s very quiet confrontation with a local storeowner who won’t sell her a bucket. The Idea of Perfection really gets into the second-by-second tick of social anxiety, with both the protagonists agonising over doing the correct thing. On the surface, this is a funny and light read, but like the patchwork that Harley puts together, Grenville is adept at balancing out the light and the dark, with the darkness in the novel largely to be found in the backstories of the two protagonists. However, The Idea of Perfection also includes a subplot about local housewife Felicity Porcelline, who is determined to be a model to everybody else but ends up being tempted by adultery, and I felt this really detracted from the novel as a whole. Felicity is a very familiar caricature and her story distracted from the warmer thread of Harley and Douglas’s growing bond. Because of this wasted page-time, the novel seemed too long, but also wrapped up too quickly; there didn’t seem to be enough space in the final chapters to really feel for our protagonists. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the quirky originality and clever observations of The Idea of Perfection, and liked it better than the only other Grenville I’ve read (The Secret River).

The cover of Larry’s Party I originally read, L, and my current edition, R. I love how green all editions of Larry’s Party are!

Carol Shields’s ninth novel, Larry’s Party, won the Orange Prize in 1998. The novel follows the life of an ‘ordinary’ Canadian man, Larry Weller, through a series of chronological vignettes that focus on specific years in his life, culminating in a dinner party he holds in his late forties. Shields’s purpose only really becomes clear in this long final chapter, when all the women who’ve been significant in Larry’s life debate the role of men in the late 1990s, and whether they are now redundant! Certain flashes of Larry’s life felt more freshly observed to me than others; I found the very first chapter particularly memorable, when Larry strolls delightedly through the streets wearing a wrong but better jacket than the one he put on that morning. It reminded me of Michel Faber’s brilliant short story ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’, which similarly captures a moment of unexpected joy in the middle of an ordinary day. Larry’s journey through Annunciation paintings with his second wife, Beth, an academic who is by far the most interesting character in the novel, also stuck in my mind, as did his first wife’s callous destruction of the hedge maze he lovingly builds in his garden. Finally, Shields writes hilariously and accurately about Larry’s brief midlife crisis when he turns forty: ‘and then a dazzling thought comes at him sideways – by August he will be forty-one! No longer forty, with forty’s clumsy, abject shoulders and sting of regret, but forty-one! A decent age, a mild, assured, wise and good-hearted manly age.’ However, although I liked the novel a lot, I didn’t think that it brought anything particularly new to discussions of masculinity at the turn of the twenty-first century, although it’s refreshing to see a male protagonist who is fundamentally not a bad sort. I also found the twist at the end both disappointing and frankly, unbelievable, given its minimal seeding. It allows Shields to deploy a satisfying maze metaphor but for me, negatively coloured my final impression of this solid Orange Prize winner.

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Both these novels made me reflect on how rarely I read novels that are older than a couple of years, and what I might be missing out on by focusing so closely on contemporary fiction. I also suspect that I might have been much more impressed by both these books had I read them in my late teens or early twenties, when, for whatever reason, I felt much more drawn to these kind of quiet, character-led narratives. Nowadays, as my Women’s Prize winner ranking will reveal, I am much more enthusiastic about books that make me think, and especially to books that incorporate speculative elements, whether that’s hard SF or something with just a hint of magic. I feel like this reverses some stereotypical ideas about what you like in your teens versus your thirties, but never mind!

Has reading older novels made you reflect on your present reading preferences?

Early Autumn Reading #ReadingWomen

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Anneliese Mackintosh’s Bright and Dangerous Objects combines two kinds of female-led stories that are currently very popular; the dysfunctional millennial drifting through her life, and the woman struggling with the realities and fantasies of potential motherhood. However, Solvig, the 37-year-old protagonist of this novel, is a bit different from a lot of her literary counterparts; alongside her internal conflicts, she is also occupied with a skilled and dangerous job, commercial deep-sea diving for an oil company in the North Sea. (This addresses one of my most frequent complaints about this kind of novel, so kudos to Mackintosh for that!) She also toys with what is probably one of the most extreme solutions to her present problems contemplated by any of these literary women: joining the first mission to Mars as a colonist. Bright and Dangerous Objects doesn’t have a lot to say about either deep-sea diving or Mars, so I wouldn’t advise picking it up if your interest really lies in either of those areas, rather than with Solvig herself. However, I thought that Mackintosh’s take on this sub-genre was smarter and more engaging than many I’ve read, especially when she starts getting into the idea that going to Mars could potentially be seen as a suicide mission, given the high death rate anticipated among colonists. While the novel never seems to take the Mars mission totally seriously as an option, this does give it some thematic resonance; is there something appealing for Solvig in bowing out of life when she could still just about be perceived as the maiden, rather than the mother or the crone? Bright and Dangerous Objects, as a piece of work, was too sketchy and brief for me, but it suggests that Mackintosh has the potential to write something brilliant.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK and US on October 6th.

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Cal has retired from the Chicago police force to a tiny town in rural Ireland, where he spends his time doing up an old farmhouse and enjoying long, casual chats with his neighbours. However, when a local teenager, Trey, whose older brother Brendan has recently gone missing, starts hanging around his property, Cal finds himself being pulled into this community far more deeply and dangerously than he intended. French is known for her brilliant Dublin Murder Squad novels, a series of police procedurals, and it seemed to me that, in The Searcher, she wanted to write about sombody conducting an investigation who can’t fall back on the apparatus of the state; no forensics, no technology, no mobile phone records. This allows French to showcase what she has always been best at – mapping out conversations between two people when one has something to hide and the other wants to find it out, which have before taken place in the interrogation room but are now set in bedrooms, shops and fields. However, thematically, Cal’s lack of formal ties also allows French to explore how this forces him to negotiate right and wrong outside the framework of the police force, and to ask questions about the role of the police themselves that are hugely relevant in the wake of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement. As Elle says in her review, the conversation that Cal and Trey have about the difference between ‘etiquette, manners and morals’ is absolutely crucial to French’s project, as is Cal tussling with the idea that he once had a personal ‘code’ which he has lost along the way.

However, although The Searcher is an intelligent and immersive novel, it fell a little short for me. Of all French’s protagonists, I felt Cal was the one who is least called upon to truly rethink what he believes. My concern is that somebody who has bought into ideas about the silliness of ‘woke’ millennials might think that they are being vindicated here – with Cal’s comments, for example, about how everyone today is too hung up on using the correct language rather than doing the right thing – and while I don’t think that’s what French is saying at all, I wanted her to back Cal into a tighter corner. Because the narrative ended up being too straightforward, this sits in the second tier of French novels for me, alongside The Witch Elm and my least favourite Dublin Murder Squad novel, Faithful Place. I still miss the supernatural spark that lights up all of French’s best books, and I don’t think her most recent stories have been as enthralling. Nevertheless, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: French cannot write a bad novel, and this is still so worth reading.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the US on October 6th and in the UK on November 5th.

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As regular readers of this blog will know, I am aiming to read all twenty-four previous winners of the Women’s Prize as part of their #ReadingWomen challenge before the ‘Winner of Winners’ is announced in November. Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter was the first ever winner of the Prize back in 1996, and at first glance it’s a weird choice, although after I’d thought about it for a little while, I could see that it’s concerned with themes such as patriarchy and motherhood that would have seemed relevant for the inaugural winner of a prize for women writers. Catherine and her brother Rob have grown up isolated from the world in their grandfather’s slowly decaying manor house sometime shortly before the First World War. Catherine’s narration reveals how closely she feels entwined with this building and the land that surrounds it. ‘I knew as much about the house as Rob did. More. I watched it, and he never did. I knew where its walls trapped sunlight and fed it back to you when you leaned against them after dust. I knew where the pears ripened first against the kitchen-garden wall’. Ultimately, her home is overtaken by the natural world: ‘It doesn’t want to be a house any more. It swarms with life… When I went into my grandfather’s room his window was black with leaves.’ I’ve never been especially impressed with Dunmore’s writing before, but here it’s stunning; this book delivers atmosphere in spades, reminiscient of any number of classic novels about lonely girls and old houses, although Catherine’s off-kilter narration reminded me most strongly of Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Unlike that novel, however, A Spell of Winter feels uneasily poised between fantasy and realism, and although the secondary characters are often vivid, I wasn’t as swept away by Catherine’s voice as I felt I needed to be. While reading, I kept on feeling that I was about to be swallowed up by this book, but I never quite got there. Nevertheless, this is a distinctive novel, and I’m not surprised it appealed to the original panel of judges.

20 Books of Summer, #10: The Road Home by Rose Tremain #ReadingWomen

I’m taking part in the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s #ReadingWomen challenge, aiming to read all 24 previous winners of the Women’s Prize before the autumn. Now I have two left to go!

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Rose Tremain’s The Road Home won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008. It follows Lev, an immigrant from a nameless Eastern European country, as he struggles to make a life for himself in England while sending money home to his mother and his young daughter. For much of the novel, Lev is positioned as a neutral social observer, and Tremain often seems to be using him (as well as some of the other characters that he meets) as a mouthpiece for the things she wants to say about the weirdnesses and excesses of English society. For example, when Lev goes to see an experimental new play that features a character who watches child pornography, he thinks it’s ‘disgusting’ and gets into an argument with his girlfriend, Sophie, about it:

I think it’s brilliant,” said Sophie… “it’s radical and brave and – ” 

It’s shit,” said Lev… “I understand you now. You don’t see anything! You see what is “fashion”, what is “smart”. That’s all that matters to you. Because you don’t know the world… I’m not sick, like this play. At home I have a daughter, Maya. I love this daughter – 

Who cares?” said Preece [an artist.] “That’s so not relevant. Who cares if you’ve got a daughter? This is art. This is cutting edge.”

Because of this, Lev doesn’t develop a distinctive voice or character of his own. For much of the novel, he remains a cipher, flipping between different registers depending on what Tremain wants from the interaction; which makes the one scene where he smashes out of his anodyne default even more shocking. As this argument about art heats up, he suddenly, for no obvious reason ‘grabbed Sophie and locked her body to his with his arm around her neck… She began to choke and gasp.’  Later on, when she comes round to see if he’s OK after he’s fired from his job, he rapes her. Nevertheless, the reader seems to be expected to continue keeping company with Lev as if all of this is forgivable and understandable; it’s not presented as a line that he’s crossed.

While this is horrific enough by itself, the problems with this novel run even deeper. As I’ve suggested, Tremain uses Lev to criticise certain aspects of English society, but this never amounts to a fundamental engagement with the problems of capitalism and globalisation. In other exchange where she seems to be making her characters spell out one of the messages she wants to impart, Lev is talking to Midge, the owner of an asparagus farm that employs migrant labour. Lev thinks that Midge’s Chinese employees are so happy all the time because “in England, they feel more… free than in China. And this freedom gives them happiness.” (The Chinese stereotypes in this novel are something else.) Midge replies: “Never think of our lives as “free”, do we? Think of them as one long work shift… But perhaps, in this country, we take a lot for granted.” Later, Lev is talking to a friend who works as a mortgage advisor: she comments ‘We have a mountain of personal debt in this country… in Britain, everybody wants it now, hurry-scurry: new house, new car, new fridge, new kitchen…’. This novel was published just before the financial crisis, but this message is still pretty awful: England is the promised land, and individuals’ problems are their own greedy fault. It’s notable that Lev encounters barely a jot of xenophobia throughout the whole novel, despite anti-immigrant sentiment being rife at the time; prime minister Gordon Brown made his infamous ‘British jobs for British workers’ statement the year this novel was published.

So if England is mostly all right, actually, what about the nameless country Lev has left behind, and which he still thinks of as ‘home’? The trouble is that we don’t know anything about it. Not only is it never identified, everything we do learn is generic; it’s poor, people struggle to get work, vodka is the most popular drink, Lev’s mother sews traditional things, Lev’s best friend runs a dodgy taxi business with a patched-together car. By refusing to make this country real, Tremain plays into stereotypes of a faceless, grim Eastern Europe defined solely by its Communist past, and contrasts this no-place with the opportunities offered by a England – mostly by a London – that is rendered in specific detail. As Eveline Kilian argues in her analysis of the novel, ‘There is nothing in Lev’s country that seems worth preserving: no traditions, no culture, no political ideas; it is a place with “[n]o future”‘. [1] It’s only by adopting British values that Lev can build a successful life for himself back home, opening a restaurant that he’s sure will make money because it will be ‘the first one in my country where the food will be truly good’. I can’t imagine that The Road Home felt especially timely or insightful even in 2008, and I fervently hope that it wouldn’t win the Women’s Prize if it were published today.

[1] Eveline Kilian, ‘Frames of recognition under global capitalism: Eastern European migrants in British fiction’ in Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain ed. Barbara Korte and Frédéric Regard (DeGruyter, 2014), p.138. [Paywalled, but you can read an extract here.]

#ReadingWomen: Past Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners, Part One

This post offers a break from my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist coverage with… more Women’s Prize content!

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is setting up a #ReadingWomen challenge this year, challenging readers to read all 24 of the previous prize winners. I’ve been desultorily pursuing this aim since 2015 and so have a head start – I only had 5 previous winners left to read when they announced the challenge!

A long time ago in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction was still called the Orange Prize*, I was only a child and did not follow the Prize as obsessively as I do now. Because of this, most of the winners that I haven’t yet read are from this earlier period of the Prize’s history. In this post, I’m taking a look at two of these early winners; the remaining three will be covered in later posts. Eventually, I will try and rank all 24 (though this will be dubious as I read some of them a LONG time ago).

*although this name lasted until 2012 and is still my favourite iteration of the Women’s Prize’s various names. There’s something that feels so fitting about it, as if men are the standard apples of the literary world and women are the sharper, more innovative oranges, even though I know it’s the name of the sponsor!

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Anne Michaels’ debut novel Fugitive Pieces was the second ever winner of the Orange Prize, in 1997. The book is narrated by Jakob Beer, who fled the Holocaust as a young boy in Poland, hiding in a forest after his parents and older sister Bella were taken by the Nazis. Jakob is rescued by a Greek geologist Athos, who takes him first to Greece and then to Toronto. In the last third of the book, the narrative switches to Ben, a Canadian professor of weather patterns (classic literary fiction job) whose parents were also Holocaust survivors and who, it transpires, is their third but only living child. Ben becomes obsessed with Jakob’s poetry as a way of helping him understand the trauma his family has suffered, despite the fact that Jakob himself failed to process the horrors in his own past.

I anticipated that I would struggle with Fugitive Pieces because of the ubiquity of Holocaust narratives in contemporary literature; what I didn’t anticipate was the incredible pretentiousness of its prose. Elle has pretty much said everything I want to say about this novel’s writing in her brilliant review, so I won’t dwell on the subject, but as an example, this are the kind of musings our narrators go in for:

History is the poisoned well, seeping into the groundwater. It’s not the unknown past we’re doomed to repeat, but the past we know. Every recorded event is a brick of potential, of precedent, thrown into the future. Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head. This is the duplicity of history: an idea recorded will become an idea resurrected. Out of fertile ground, the compost of history.

Lightning has restored a man’s sight and also his hair.

Ball lightning enters through a window, a door, a chimney. Silently it circles the room, browses the bookshelf and, as if unable to decide where to sit, disappears through the same air passage by which it entered.

A thousand accumulated moments come to fruition in a few seconds. Your cells are reassembled. Struck, your metal melted. Your burnt shape is branded into the chair, vacancy where once you inhabited society. Worst of all, she appears to you as everything you’ve ever lost.

It sometimes seems unfair to pluck paragraphs from a book and critique them, but in Fugitive Pieces, this is exactly how they read in the narrative. Michaels’ prose often feels like a series of strung-together sentences that have no obvious connection to each other, and often deliberately obscure meaning, as in the first passage, where past events move from being a poisoned well to a brick to compost. Occasionally she hits upon something that is strong out of context; I like the sentence ‘Eventually the idea will hit someone in the back of the head’ and the idea of ball lightning browsing the bookshelf. But none of this adds up to anything, because the prose isn’t doing any work. Incidentally, the first passage above comes from Jakob’s section of the book and the second from Ben’s; the two narrators are completely indistinguishable, which to my mind is a pretty unforgivable novelistic sin.

Furthermore, the passage about the lightning prefigures Ben’s meeting with one of the few female characters in this novel, and it’s entirely typical. Women in this world always ‘appear’ to men when they need them, manifesting as a cluster of ideal traits, never as individuals in their own right. Jakob’s first wife, Alex, is a manic pixie dream girl before the term was fashionable; she seems to only have one character trait, which is making incredibly annoying puns: ‘I’m making a check list, is Liszt Czech?’ His second wife, Michaela, draws an even shorter straw, as her only defining characteristic is that she is so much younger than Jakob, a fact of which we are continually reminded: ‘I dream of Michaela – young, glistening smooth as marble, sugary wet with sunlight’. The women in Ben’s life are similarly attuned to what his narrative arc needs at any given point, and appear and disappear accordingly.

It’s hard for me to think of a novel that does so many of the things I hate most, and so, despite its occasional moments of emotional clarity – for example, Jakob’s memories and imaginings of his sister Bella – Fugitive Pieces was an outright failure for me.

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Valerie Martin’s seventh novel, Property, won the Orange Prize in 2003. Set in the 1820s, it’s narrated by Manon, the wife of a Louisiana slaveowner who hates her husband and longs to return to her native New Orleans; but even the hope of inheriting her mother’s property is tainted by her knowledge that it will be swallowed up by her husband’s debts. Manon’s frustration and rage is turned upon an enslaved woman, Sarah, who has been forced to have two children with Manon’s husband, and who now, in Manon’s eyes, haunts her house like a living reminder of this infidelity. As rumours of a slave rebellion move through the South, Manon herself becomes increasingly restless and abusive towards this woman who is in her power.

Recently, I’ve been concerned by certain literary furores that seem to suggest that novelists should not write in the voice of an oppressor. I’m working on a longer post on this issue at the moment, but in short, I think this arises from the misguided assumption that fiction has only one purpose – to ‘give voice’ to marginalised people whose stories we need to hear. If this were true, it would be obvious why we shouldn’t write from the perspective of those who hold power over others, as they already control the narrative in the real world. But while ‘giving voice’ to the oppressed can be a function of fiction, I don’t think it’s the most important thing fiction can do, and it definitely isn’t the only thing novels are for. This is demonstrated perfectly by Property. If we’re playing by ‘giving voice’ rules, then this is a terrible novel – we only hear from an abusive, privileged and selfish white woman, while all the black characters, both enslaved and free, are totally silenced. But imprisoning the reader in Manon’s head sheds light on the self-justifying logic of those who practiced slavery. Manon is acutely aware of the injustices that she faces – as a married woman, she is not able to hold property in her own right, for example. Nevertheless, she is completely unable to view enslaved people as anything but subhuman. While she dislikes her husband’s exceptionally cruel behaviour towards some enslaved boys, this seems to be more a matter of what she views as good estate management rather than morality.

Martin’s portrayal of Manon also plays with received wisdom about the function of a protagonist. Manon is not a traditional protagonist nor even an antagonist – she exercises very little agency and spends most of her time bemoaning her lot. Meanwhile, Sarah, who speaks only a handful of sentences over the novel’s pages, is the most active character in the novel, albeit largely off-screen. This doesn’t mean that Sarah is our protagonist either, but I think this helps us to understand the power of Martin’s authorial choices. Some reviewers have suggested that this would be a better novel if it gave Sarah a narrative voice as well, but I think this misses the point. It is precisely Sarah’s silence in the story, I would suggest, that brings home the totality of slavery as an institution. Sarah, as we know from hearsay, is an articulate and intelligent woman, but she will not speak to Manon because her voice is something that Manon cannot own. By refusing to relate her own story, Sarah makes herself unknowable, and hence, to Manon’s persistent frustration, forever beyond the complete domination that Manon craves. Seventeen years after it was first published, Property still has a great deal to say.