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:


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:


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:


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


2018 in Books: Commendations and Disappointments

As always, I won’t be posting my Top Ten Books of 2018 until the 31st December, but here are some books that almost made my top ten – and also my biggest disappointments of the year. Links are to my reviews. All books are first read by me in 2018, not necessarily first published in 2018.

Highly Commended

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was especially strong this year, and there were lots of standout titles for me. I’ll focus on my two favourites here. Fiona Mozley’s Elmetwhich was shortlisted for the Booker but inexplicably failed to make the Women’s Prize shortlist, is mesmerisingly good on femininity and masculinity, and the close connections of a single family to rural Yorkshire. Jessie Greengrass’s shortlisted Sight mixes auto-fiction with historic interludes that cover the detection of X-rays, the psychoanalytical work of Anna Freud and a nineteenth-century Scottish surgeon. I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood.

I read two excellent short story collections: Julianne Pachico’s The Lucky Onesset between 1993 and 2013 in Colombia, New York and DC, and Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, one of my 20 Books of Summer, which is a series of sketches of young middle-class black lives in present-day America. Pachico deals brilliantly with the intersection between imagination and reality, whereas Thompson-Spires’s satirical narratives are delightfully vivid and larger-than-life.

2018 wasn’t as strong a year for memoir and non-fiction as 2017, but three books stood out: Xiaolu Guo’s Once Upon A Time In The East and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  neither of which I’ve reviewed on this blog, and Nancy Campbell’s The Library of IceGuo’s account of her childhood and adolescence in China is riveting, much more engaging than any of her novels. Campbell eschews autobiography to seek out ice in all of its forms, from a remote Greenlandic community to a curling rink in Scotland, successfully reinventing the overstuffed ‘polar memoir’ genre. Persepolis, one of the only graphic novels I’ve read, brilliantly and succinctly conveys Satrapi’s experience growing up in Iran after the Islamic Revolution.

Two historical novels stood out. Lissa Evans’s wonderful Old Baggageset in the late 1920s, stars Mattie, a once-militant suffragette who wonders what she should do with her life now. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies proved to be a comedic and moving take on gay male lives in Britain since 1945.

Finally, I enjoyed two novels that might broadly be called speculative. Mary Doria Russell’s eerie and unforgettable The Sparrow deals with a Jesuit mission to make contact with an alien race. I got its sequel, Children of God, for Christmas, and can’t wait to start it. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter, about a man isolated in the Arctic winter, hasn’t been reviewed on this blog but is an absolute model of how to write a horror story. Don’t read it alone in the dark.

Biggest Disappointments

By ‘biggest disappointments’ I don’t necessarily mean that these were my worst books of the year, but that they were books I’d been looking forward to, that had been hyped by publishers/reviewers/friends/all of the above, and which fell well short of my expectations.


Michael Donkor’s Hold, dealing with a teenage Ghanian housegirl, Belinda, who comes to London in 2002 to deal with a disobedient relative of the family she works for, Amma, was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018. Unfortunately, I found Donkor’s writing laborious and convoluted, and his dialogue was so doggedly ‘authentic’ as to be almost unreadable.

Both Omar El Akkad’s American War and Angela Chadwick’s XX had great premises. American War is set in the aftermath of a second civil war that has torn apart America, creating a refugee crisis. XX imagines a world where two women can have their own biological child together, opening up new possibilities for lesbian couples. However, most of American War played out like a cliched dystopian novel, whereas XX never moved beyond simplistic moral messages, refusing to explore the full implications of its imagined future. Two missed opportunities.

I was also disappointed by two authors whose novels I’d enjoyed in the past. Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was a gripping and original literary thriller, but her latest, Bitter Orange, about a lonely, middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with a glamorous younger couple during a summer spent in a country house, felt so hackneyed, and had such an unpleasant narrator, that I gave up a third of the way in, and haven’t reviewed it here. Having loved Amy Sackville’s first two novels, The Still Point and Orkney, I couldn’t wait to read her latest, Painter to the Kingwhich deals with the painter Diego Velázquez at the court of Philip IV of Spain in the first half of the seventeenth century. However, it felt more like an extended writing exercise than a novel, focusing intently on the visuals with little psychological probing into the mindsets of her characters.

I’ll be back on Monday with my Top Ten Books of 2018!



Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018

Having read fourteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I thought I’d have a go at putting together my dream shortlist before the actual one is announced on Monday. (This is with the caveat that I haven’t read Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY or Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I obviously just hate books about happiness).

I had anticipated this being a difficult task, as my overall impression of the longlist was that it was very strong. However, when I looked at these fourteen titles again, I realised that for me, there are six that are way ahead of the rest. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy any of the other books on the list, but that these six emphatically stood out.

In no particular order, with links to my reviews:

  • Sight by Jessie Greengrass. In some ways this is an awkward and disjointed novel, but I was blown away by Greengrass’s precise and brilliant meditations on pregnancy and early motherhood, as well as her writing on the grief of losing a parent when you are still a very young adult yourself.
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Drawing on the tropes of Southern Gothic, this novel traces the deep-rooted history of racial violence in Mississippi through the manifestion of a series of ghosts. The final page or so is simply spectacular.
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley. An incredibly confident exploration of masculinity and patriarchy, and the deep emotional attachments we can feel to places as well as people. The narrator’s sister, Cathy, is a particularly memorable character.
  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. This account of an violent marriage moves far beyond familiar cliches in the way it picks apart and rewrites this single story, repositioning both the abused wife and her abusive husband.
  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. A fabulous, intricate historical novel with a light touch of speculative fiction. Although it has serious themes to tackle itself, it’s also refreshingly lighter in tone than these other five titles!
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I was totally emotionally engaged by this retelling of Antigone, which deals with Parvaiz, a young British Muslim recruited by ISIS, his two sisters, Isma and Aneeka, and Eamonn, the son of Muslim Home Secretary Karamat who is staging a ‘crackdown’ on terrorism to enhance his own reputation. Best line: ‘For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition.’

I don’t have an absolute favourite to win, but Mozley, Ward and Greengrass are all strong contenders for me, with Mozley perhaps edging slightly ahead of the other two.

I’ll update this post with my thoughts on the actual shortlist once it has been released. In the meantime, what are your wishes and predictions for the 2018 shortlist?

UPDATED 23/4/18:

The actual shortlist is here!

As you can imagine, I’m pretty thrilled that it’s so close to my dream shortlist, though perplexed by the exclusion of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which appeared on all the predicted shortlists I’ve seen, and was my preferred winner. I enjoyed The Idiot and I think it’s an interesting and original book in a number of ways, but found it meandering and over-long. However, I’m excited to have read all of the six shortlisted titles, and will now be backing Sight or Sing, Unburied, Sing as the overall winner.

Who do you think should win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018?

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 3

My final post on the Women’s Prize longlist! I’ll put up my dream shortlist on Friday, ahead of the actual announcement on Monday April 23rd. Meanwhile, here are two books that hover between fact and fiction, dealing creatively with (auto)biographical material.


Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is based on her own experiences of a violent and abusive marriage in southern India. She marries a university lecturer who loves to tell exaggerated stories of his insurgent past, who memorises Marx and Lenin and chastises her for not living up to his revolutionary ideals. He hates her feminism, seeing it as a bourgeois indulgence, and states that any discussion of sexuality, or of women’s bodies, is totally irrelevant to the communist struggle. Soon, he is exerting classic techniques of emotional and physical control: first separating his wife from the outside world by rationing her internet time and finally deleting her emails; refusing to let her go outside by herself; physically abusing her with various household objects; and accusing her of having any number of imaginary lovers. When I Hit You is, at least partly, about resistance, and how the narrator survives before she finally manages to leave her husband, first by typing and deleting words on her laptop during the day, and then, when her laptop is taken from her, by rehearsing narratives in her head. The book jumps between these different narratives, between different ways of telling her story, and the variety of voices that she uses to rephrase her own words.

This allows Kandasamy both to demonstrate incredible versatility as a writer and to skewer the patriarchal, masculine norms that have led to her sustained abuse. The opening section is ironically funny as the narrator describes her mother’s reaction to the state that her abuse left her hair in (short and lice-infested): ‘With each progressive retelling… the lice multiplied, becoming settlements and then townships and then cities and then nations. In my mother’s version of the story, these lice caused traffic disturbances on my hair, they took evening walks on my slender neck… they recruited an enormous number of overenthusiastic child soldiers and then they engaged in out-and-out war with my mother.’ A later section is polemic: ‘In India, a bride is burnt every ninety minutes… Stuck here alone, I count the passage of hours by the number of brides who have been burnt to death… I do not want my kitchen to become my funeral pyre.’ Later still, the narrator takes control of the narrative by mentally writing scenes in her head and analysing her husband’s character, finally goading him into open threats: ‘His verbal threat to kill is enough. It’s what I came for. He is scripting the ending that I wanted for us. I generously allow him this authorship.’ When I Hit You, then, becomes more than just a hard-hitting book about a violent marriage but a meditation on self-fashioning, and how we can interrupt and puncture the stories that others tell about us.


Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma deals not with her own story but with the histories of her grandparents – Naw Chit Khin, a Karen working as a nanny in Rangoon and Saw Benson, a Jewish immigrant to Burma from Calcutta – and her mother, Louisa Benson Craig, who became a Karen insurgent leader in Burma before emigrating to the US. The novel starts with Louisa’s victory in the Miss Burma beauty pageant of 1956, but the next two thirds focus on Khin and Benny, as they meet in Rangoon, have children and become separated during the Japanese occupation of Burma in the Second World War, and during the turbulent period that follows the Burmese declaration of independence from Britain in 1948. As Louisa grows older, the narrative shifts into her point of view, as she leaves for university in America and returns to join the Karen Liberation Army. As this suggests, Miss Burma highlights a significant time in Burmese history that many Western readers (such as me) will know little about, especially the ethnic tension between the ruling Burmans and groups like the Karens, who have fought for an independent Karen state since the mid twentieth century. In this, it brings something genuinely new to the table, especially in highlighting the perspectives of individuals such as Benny and Khin, who embody multiple identities – Khin as a Christian Karen (the majority of Karens are Buddhist) married to a white man, and Benny as a Jew who feels utterly removed from his roots, having known nothing but South India and Burma.

Unfortunately, I felt that this strong material was not really showcased by the novel’s awkward structure and pedestrian, wordy writing. Miss Burma makes a number of strange storytelling choices. The prologue highlights Louisa as the protagonist, but we then spend most of the novel with her parents, making me feel as if we were simply waiting until she returned to the stage. Novels that cover such long time spans – Miss Burma is set between 1926 and 1965 – always have to make difficult decisions about when to compress and when to expand time, and I wasn’t sure that Craig made the right ones. The novel drags in the middle as Khin and Benny hide out in the jungle, yet when Louisa takes over the narration, it suddenly rattles through a large number of events that seemed to demand much more attention, such as student insurgency and Louisa’s own ascension to nominal political power as the representative of Burmese ‘unity’. This has knock-on effects for characterisation. The opening chapters effectively bring Benny to life, but Khin felt shallowly written and repetitive, while Louisa, in contrast, is a bit of a cipher, because we’re never given time to get properly inside her head. I wondered if this arose from the difficulty of writing about somebody so close to you; Louisa, of course, is Craig’s mother. In this interesting interview, Craig notes that:

I spent two years interviewing my mother in preparation to write the novel. This was some time before she died. On the one hand, she was supportive of the project and went along with my line of questioning. Yet her answers clung to surfaces. She could tell me of events, but when the subject turned to what those events had done to her internally, she spoke sparingly and with difficulty.

While Craig says that she tried to fill in the gaps, it’s perhaps unsurprising that gaps still remain.

Women’s Prize For Fiction Longlist, 2

Continuing my review of the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist with two very different titles.


Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy In Winter is set over the course of a few days in 1941, when the SS advance on a small Ukrainian town and round up its Jews. The book is narrated by a number of characters. Ephraim and Miryam, a Jewish couple, wait to be transported with their daughter Rosa while they fear for the fate of their two sons, Yankel and Momick, who have gone missing. Otto Pohl, a German engineer, recoiling from the Nazi Party, has managed to avoid conscription into the army and has been sent to this outpost to build a new road; however, much as he tries to shut his eyes, he soon becomes uneasily aware of what’s going on. Yasia, a ‘marsh girl’, has trekked from the countryside in search of her lover, Mykola, who has recently been released from the Red Army only to become entangled with the SS. Finally, we hear from Yankel himself, the ‘boy in winter’, who is on the run with his little brother.

A novel which deals with such events cannot fail to be moving, and Seiffert’s spare and effective writing style illuminates the horrors she describes. However, I did find myself asking what purpose it serves to retell this very familiar narrative. (While I don’t believe I’ve read a Holocaust novel before that’s specifically set in the Ukraine, the setting lends little to the story, with only very brief mentions of the legacy of the Soviet occupation, for example.) Seiffert has written about how she perceives parallels between the current political climate and 1930s Germany, but, whether or not we might feel such parallels are helpful or accurate, I didn’t feel that A Boy In Winter really led me to reflect on anything other than the very specific historical moment it deals with. Its central cast are also pretty stock. Writers need to have a very good reason for evoking such a painful and brutal history, and I wasn’t sure that A Boy In Winter added enough to the extensive fiction on the Third Reich and the Holocaust to justify telling this story again.


Joanna Cannon’s second novel, Three Things About Elsie, feels strongly reminiscent of both Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Florence is eighty-four and living in a care home, Cherry Tree; her closest companion is her best friend Elsie. She lives in fear of detoriating so much she has to be moved to Greenbanks, where she can receive full-time nursing care, and is told at the beginning of the novel that she is on a month’s ‘probation’. However, Florence believes that the newest resident of the care home is out to get her – and moreover, that he is implicated in the death of Elsie’s sister Beryl decades ago.

Cannon is an astute observer, and there are lots of clever and touching lines in Three Things About Elsie. One of the carers, Miss Ambrose, ‘always looked like someone who hadn’t had quite enough sleep, but had put on another coat of lipstick and enthusiasm, in an effort to make sure the rest of the world didn’t ever find her out.’ Elsie’s father ‘left for the war and returned as a telegram on the mantlepiece. Her mother was convinced they’d made a mistake, and she would roll her eyes and tut at the telegram, as though it was deliberately trying to trick her into early widowhood.’ Like fellow longlistee Kit de Waal, Cannon writes especially well about time, especially for the old. ‘It feels like yesterday… Sometimes, I think there must be a shortcut between the past and the present, but no-one bothers to tell you about it until you get old,’ Florence says to Elsie. ‘There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary,’ she thinks. ‘Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time, out of politeness.’ I enjoyed Florence’s stubborn resistance to the norms of the care home, and her determination to hang on to her individuality.

However, Cannon’s observations can also be a bit too obvious, especially when spelling out the morals of her story. ‘It’s called sheltered accommodation, but I’d never quite been able to work out what it was we were being sheltered from… I often wondered if it was actually the world being sheltered from us.’ My biggest problem with Three Things About Elsie, however, was the structure. We know early on that there’s a mystery surrounding Elsie, and I worked out instantly what it was, which made me feel increasingly irritated that it was positioned as a twist at the end – it would have been better, I think, to make it clear from the start. Because the book is so long, Florence’s confusions about what is real and not real became increasingly difficult to follow. I have to admit, books where the protagonist is generally confused in their own mind (rather than suffering amnesia about a specific incident) are not really my thing, as I get tired of so much uncertainty. Sections from the point of view of some of the care home staff didn’t seem to add much; nor did the past/present structure, where we flash between Florence lying on the floor of her room after a fall and her investigations a month earlier.

Three Things About Elsie has been categorised as ‘up lit’, which I don’t think should be confused with ‘cheery’. It’s a sad and difficult book in many ways. However, for me, the ‘up lit’ category seems to single out books where bad things can and do happen, but the majority of the characters are benign and well-intentioned, and kindness is emphasised as a key virtue. Three Things About Elsie definitely fulfils that criteria. It’s an easy, and, in many ways, refreshing read, but I personally wouldn’t put it on the Woman’s Prize shortlist.


Women’s Prize For Fiction Longlist, 1

When the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, I’d already read half of the sixteen longlisted titles. As there are a couple of books on the longlist that don’t interest me at all – although I’ll read them if they get shortlisted – I’m now planning to tackle the remaining six titles in three blog posts before the shortlist is announced on April 23rd. First up, two books about motherhood, daughterhood, pregnancy and loss.


Sight is the first thing by Jessie Greengrass I’ve read (she’s also published a collection of short stories, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It) but it certainly won’t be the last. Greengrass writes the kind of extraordinary prose that illuminates even the simplest of fictional lives, demonstrating the significance of things that in another writer’s hands would be banal. Her writing reminds me of Gwendoline Riley’s First Love and Samantha Harvey’s Dear ThiefSight’s structure may be off-putting to some readers, and certainly the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads indicate that this is a Marmite book, with people usually giving it either two or five stars. The unnamed narrator’s musings on the death of her own mother when she was a very young woman, her decision to become a mother herself, and the experience of her second pregnancy are intercut with three biographical essays on the history of science. The first considers Wilhelm Röntgen, who first produced and detected X rays. The second is on Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s less famous psychoanalyst daughter, who I’ve encountered in my own historical research because of her feuds with Melanie Klein over the psychoanalysis of children. The third is on John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon who has no simple legacy, but who taught Edward Jenner, emphasised the importance of watchful observation during his time as a battlefield medic, and ran an anatomy school in London.

What links these four threads is the idea of inward sight: how far we can see into ourselves, and how far others can see into us. Greengrass’s description of the dissection of the body of a woman who died while giving birth (memorialised in William Hunter’s The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, which seems to have been inspiring a lot of novelists recently – it also turns up in Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break) is set beside the idea of psychoanalysis as a way of disentangling and anatomising your inward self. The famous X ray image of Röntgen’s wife Anna’s hand is used by Greengrass to remind us that there are some things we can’t see through – in this case, Anna’s wedding ring. For this reason, Sight’s tangled threads worked beautifully for me. However, Greengrass’s prose is even better than her structure; the sections on pregnancy and early motherhood here are the best – and also, for women like me who struggle with the idea of having children and having to live up to the label of ‘mother’, the most reassuring I’ve ever read. Here’s a bit of what she has to say:

‘Even after birth… I felt that I had not quite done things properly and that my own experience lacked, in some way, that element necessary to transform it into knowledge: that it remained not the thing itself but only a picture of it, so I was not quite yet a mother… I waited, patiently, through all the dark extended hours for the instant of my own remaking when at last I would feel the things I ought: certainty, transparency, delight; but it didn’t come… I came at last to understand that what I had taken for a temporary loss of balance was only how things always would be… and even then I could not say for certain that I was happy but only that the thought of things being otherwise was unbearable.’

Sight is not only about what we can and cannot see, but, it seemed to me, about how being reliant only on sight distances us from what we can learn from our own bodies. It’s a short but tremendous novel, and, despite splitting opinions, surely has to be a strong contender for the Women’s Prize shortlist.

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


Kit de Waal’s second novel, The Trick to Time, also begins with a daughter who is losing her mother. When Mona, who is only a child at the time, balks at spending her days by her mother’s sickbed, her father tells her: ‘one day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time… You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer.’ The Trick to Time flashes between Mona’s present, where she is growing old making dolls in a coastal village, and Mona’s past, as she grows up and leaves rural Ireland for a new life in Manchester. The central conceit of the novel – how Mona uses ‘the trick to time’ throughout the course of her life – is handled very well by de Waal. The Trick to Time is a desperately sad novel, but it never feels melodramatic or exploitative. There are particular scenes that I know will take some time to leave me.

However, while I liked The Trick to Time, I wouldn’t put it on the Women’s Prize shortlist. A big problem for me was pacing. Because I worked out pretty quickly what the tragedy in Mona’s past was (and I don’t think this is meant to be a big twist, I think most readers will guess it early on) the first half of the novel felt very slow, as we wait to get to that point in the past timeline. Once it’s happened – and de Waal conveys Mona’s shock and grief incredibly well – I sped through the second half of the novel. However, a cumbersome sub-plot about the older Mona starting to date Karl, an aristocratic European who has recently moved to her village, added nothing for me. Mona’s early happy days in Manchester also felt as if they’d been wheeled out simply to highlight the trauma that follows – her relationship with first boyfriend, William, feels pasted in from numerous other novels.

Most of all, though, The Trick to Time probably suffered simply because I read it alongside Sight, which got me thinking about how much writing about motherhood and pregnancy tends to take for granted. The Trick to Time is no worse at this than many other novels, but the way that Mona easily falls into line with social expectations made me feel that the story I was reading was hugely familiar. As I’ve suggested above, The Trick to Time does take the reader to some more interesting places – but it’s up against a very strong longlist, and I didn’t feel it stood out enough.

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

Brief Thoughts on The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018


The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018 is out! To my surprise, I’ve already read half of the sixteen longlisted titles. Here’s what I thought of the ones I’ve read, with links to my reviews where they exist.

I loved Kamila Shamsie’s Home FireJesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingFiona Mozley’s Elmet and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock(I especially love that Gowar only realised that she was eligible yesterday, and Shamsie got the news while in midair). I’d be very happy to see any of these novels win the whole thing.

I enjoyed reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach – its scenes of diving in the New York harbour during the Second World War are especially strong – but it’s uneven compared to Egan’s earlier work, and I’d be surprised if it was shortlisted. Elif Batuman’s The Idiot was just too much of a good thing for me, though I’m pleased to see it longlisted, especially as it seems to have received little attention.

Unfortunately, Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine were probably two of the titles I most strongly disliked last year, and I was praying for the latter, in particular, not to be included on the longlist. (I found Schmidt’s writing style deliberately repulsive, but the fact it evoked such a strong reaction in me probably means there’s something to be said for it).


Of the longlisted titles I haven’t read, I was already planning to read Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, and Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time. The one title I hadn’t heard of was Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma, but it looks pretty intriguing.

I’m less interested in Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, having struggled with both Burley Cross Postbox Theft and Darkmans, but I do feel she’s a writer I ought to appreciate. The lukewarm reviews of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have put me off it somewhat, and I’m worried that Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie will be too sweet for me, though in fairness I’ve never read anything by her. Finally, Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter is off-putting to me simply because it deals with the Third Reich, although I have been surprised before by how authors can re-invent this very familiar material.

What’s missing? Like Hermes Gowar, I can never remember what’s eligible! I was surprised not to see Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan after rave reviews from bloggers, and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends after its winning the Young Writer of the Year Award. Ali Smith’s Winter was strongly tipped but I’m finding Smith’s novels increasingly repetitive (having been a big fan for many years) and am not really bothered not to see it there. Overall, despite the two titles I couldn’t stand, I’m impressed by the strength of the longlist, and the number of interesting titles to investigate.

What are other people’s thoughts on the 2018 longlist?