Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019: Final Thoughts

Unknown

As all readers of this blog probably know by now, I found this a disappointing year for the Women’s Prize, especially following the incredibly strong longlist and shortlist in 2018. For me, the problem started with the longlist. Not only were some of my favourite novels written by women in the past year omitted (Lissa Evans’s Old BaggageSamantha Harvey’s The Western Windand Sarah Perry’s Melmoth), I found most of the novels on the longlist to be mildly or majorly disappointing – with the caveat that I haven’t read, and will not be reading, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant. For me, even novels that were evidently strong contenders, such as Ghost Wall, Normal People, The Pisces, Bottled Goods and The Silence of the Girls, failed to blow me away. My thoughts on the longlisted titles I’ve read are as follows, with a line from each of my reviews. In order of preference:

  • Milkman: ‘a uniquely frustrating read… incredible’
  • Ghost Wall: ‘a below par Moss novel is still very much worth reading’
  • The Silence of the Girls: the novel lost some of its power once its voice was divided… [Nevertheless], wonderful’
  • The Pisces: ‘I wasn’t totally won over by this novel, but it will continue to niggle at me’
  • Normal People: ‘an addictive read… [but] I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as a future classic’
  • Freshwater: ‘doesn’t quite work at times… Nevertheless, this is a startling novel’
  • An American Marriage: ‘effortlessly readable… [but] not especially groundbreaking’
  • Bottled Goods: ‘very arresting… [but] too slight’
  • Lost Children Archive: ‘lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality [but] incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood
  • Circe: ‘the morality is a bit black-and-white… [but] Miller’s writing is still excellent’
  • My Sister, The Serial Killer: ‘is this really doing something edgy, or is it just more of the same from a flipped perspective?’
  • Ordinary People: ‘incredibly familiar… Evans is obviously a good writer – but I didn’t find her choice of material captivating’
  • Remembered: ‘weak writing… tips over into exploitative melodrama’

shortlist-WP-400x270

Therefore, when the shortlist came out, I was less disappointed than many other bloggers, as the only longlisted titles I had strong positive feelings about were Milkman and The Silence of the Girls. My main feeling was relief that none of the titles I really didn’t like/really didn’t want to read had been shortlisted. However, inevitably, this is not a strong shortlist.

Who do I want to win? An American Marriage, Ordinary People and Circe are totally out of the running for me, and for different reasons, I don’t think any of them are likely winners. Milkman is by far the best novel on the shortlist and longlist, but has already won the Booker, and I don’t see this taking the Women’s Prize as well (though we all said they would never shortlist two classical retellings, so maybe!!!) This leaves two candidates.

9780385544238

I would be very cross if My Sister, The Serial Killer took the prize. This fun and inventive thriller is simply not substantial enough to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Although this should have no bearing on my judgement of the book, I also find it difficult to take Braithwaite seriously as a writer after reading an interview with her where she gives the impression that she dashed this novel off quickly after deciding she wanted to get published by thirty. Perhaps Braithwaite will write brilliant novels in the future (she was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016!), but this isn’t one of them.

9780241983201

I’m hence backing The Silence of the Girls as the most likely, and most personally satisfying, winner. I found this retelling of the siege of Troy incredibly vivid and emotionally engaging. While I agree with other bloggers that the shifting points of view diluted the impact of the novel, I guess I simply wasn’t as invested in the idea of hearing the unheard voices of the women involved. Many retellings have already done this, notably Adele Geras’s Troy, though admittedly from inside rather than outside the city walls. I also disagree that the Women’s Prize has to reward novels with a specifically feminist agenda, although there’s certainly a feminist slant to this retelling. While I don’t believe that this is the best novel written by a women this past year, this would be the best outcome for me from the shortlist as it stands.

And the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 is…

9781786075192

It would be fair to say this is an unexpected result, and I know many people will be cross. An American Marriage has already received plenty of acclaim in the US (Obama’s summer reading pick!) and it isn’t a technically accomplished novel. Choosing it over Milkman or even The Silence of the Girls is absurd. Nevertheless, my primary emotion is relief. Unlike My Sister, The Serial Killer, Ordinary People and Circe (though the last of those three is much better written), this was at least a novel that I warmed to, and I do like Jones as a writer. Congratulations to her, and let’s all cross our fingers for a stronger longlist next year!

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019?

Advertisements

Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)

 

At first glance, it might seem perverse to pair Sarah Moss’s Night Waking and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces. One is about an harassed, exhausted mother trying to write an academic book and deal with two children on a remote Scottish island, ‘Colsay’ (St Kilda), while her ornithologist husband counts puffins; the other is about a single woman who, seeking no-strings sex, falls in love with a merman whom she meets on an LA beach. Nevertheless, I happened to read the two side by side, and that made me think about the ways both Moss and Broder write about sex, the sea and academia.

I first read Night WakingMoss’s second novel, eight years ago, and it’s been nettling me ever since. I couldn’t decide then, and I still can’t decide now, who to like and dislike, whose fault is what, and I think this is quite deliberate. Anna, our first-person narrator, a historian of childhood in her early thirties and mother to seven-year-old Raphael and two-year-old Moth, is not an easy person to warm to, even though her narrative is frequently hilarious and her complaints are usually justified. She tends to express her resentment through sidelong comments to her children; for example, when reading Moth the adventures of Lucy and Tom: ‘Lucy is helping to pack up the picnic… Tom, reinforcing gender stereotypes, has gone to get the buckets and spades from the sandpit.’ Or when Moth pleads ‘Mummy stop it raining’, ‘I can’t stop it raining. Believe me, if I had supernatural powers the world would be a very different place.’ 

When I first read this book, in my early twenties, I felt uncomfortable about Anna’s frank relationship with her children, but now I find myself applauding her. What’s less relatable now about her character, for me, is why she puts up with so much. We never find out why she decided to have two children so young (for her demographic), with a significant age gap between them (Anna is in her early thirties, so must have had Raphael when she was around twenty-five), why she insists on baking her own bread and cooking for the family when she hates it and is rubbish at it, or why she doesn’t just give husband Giles an ultimatum about his lack of contribution to childcare and housework.

On first glance, Lucy, the thirty-eight-year-old protagonist of The Pisces, might conceivably be more relatable to other single, childless women, and Broder certainly has her come out with some brilliant sets of observations, especially near the start of the novel. But she’s also frustrating in similar ways to the unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RelaxationLike Anna, Lucy has an academic book to write; unlike Anna, she has no caring responsibilities (short of a friendly dog called Dominic) and is being allowed to stay for free in her sister’s LA beach house.

This is reflected in the symbolic landscapes of the two novels. The sea that Anna encounters on Colsay is wild, cold and obviously deadly; she almost comes to grief trying to get back to the island in a small boat on one occasion, and we know that people have died in it in the past. Meanwhile, Lucy’s California ocean is warm, erotic and welcoming; we only find out later that it too has a fatal edge.

But what about the sex? This might seem to be the biggest difference between the two novels. The Pisces is deliberately explicit; Lucy’s sexual experiences both with her merman, and with a range of random Tinder dates, are described in detail, and while I didn’t find the novel crude in the way I was expecting, it actually becomes completely non-erotic in its clear descriptions of bodily functions. Meanwhile, Anna does have sex with Giles, but it happens offscreen every time, and is blink-and-you’ll-miss it, buried under the narrative’s dominant concerns of childcare, academic writing and the infant skeleton that Anna finds in their garden, which turns out to date from the 1860s. If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’. However, sex is significant in Night Waking in a way I didn’t appreciate at first, and less significant in The Pisces than I had expected.

Lucy pretends to be seeking carnal experience, but she really wants to be loved. All her pre-merman sex is disappointing, and while sex with the merman is transcendent, it doesn’t silence her deep conviction that all relationships are essentially power games. ‘When Romeo cried for Juliet, because he thought she was dead, it was Juliet who had the power. But then she cried for him when he was really dead, and he had the power. It’s the dead one who is the most cherished in the end.’ The Pisces ends with Lucy rejecting sexual love for platonic love: ‘I had hoped that fantasy would triumph. Now I was left with neither. But I had my sister.’ 

In contrast, Giles and Anna continuously squabble but do not separate, and it’s implied that what holds them together is a deep and mutual sexual bond, all the more powerful for not being shown to the reader, and revealed largely through Raphael and Moth’s surprise at their parents being more openly affectionate than usual after the deed: ‘ “Daddy, why did you do that?”…”What?”… “Kiss Mummy.”‘ Both books leave the reader with thorny questions. Is good sex worth it, if it binds you to someone who’s exploiting your emotional and domestic labour? Is it better to be with someone with whom you’re less sexually compatible, but who you can live a full life with, rather than having to mould your life around theirs? Does love need good sex? Does good sex need love? I wasn’t totally won over by either of these novels, but I know that both will continue to niggle at me.

A note re. the Women’s Prize 2019; while I’m not sure whether or not The Pisces, which was longlisted, would make my personal shortlist, it’s definitely better than at least half the books on the actual shortlist, and so should be there. And Sarah Moss being shunned unfairly by the Women’s Prize judges has a long history; Night Waking was not longlisted in 2011.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2019

I have now read eleven of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019, which is pretty much what I planned (I’m definitely going to read Normal People whatever happens, but I won’t be reading Praise Song for the Butterflies, Swan Song, Number One Chinese Restaurant or The Pisces unless they’re shortlisted, based on a combination of other bloggers’ reviews and personal taste). First, I’ll present my own personal wish list. WHICH IS:

I’ve made the executive decision to put Normal People on here without actually reading it, as I’m so annoyed by how I’ve been continually thwarted by my local libraries in my efforts to read this novel, but in case I hate it, I have an runner-up option:

61L211Lg2+L

I have to say that, for me, this longlist isn’t nearly as strong as the 2018 longlist, which explains the inclusion of titles such as An American Marriage and Bottled Goods on my personal wish list, even if neither of these novels blew me away. However, here’s why I chose each of these titles, with links to my reviews. In no particular order:

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney. While, as admitted above, I haven’t read this story of schoolfriends Connell and Marianne growing up in rural Ireland and heading to Dublin for university, I’m pretty sure I’m going to like it. My review of Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friendsis here.
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This debut novel, which memorably declares ‘One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match’, considers Ada’s struggle with her various selves, understood through the lens of Igbo belief rather than Western psychological categories. Original and thought-provoking.
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. For me, this was probably the most emotionally engaging of the longlisted titles; I was riveted by Barker’s brutal account of the enslaving of Briseis by the Greek army and her life among the other women of the camp. Yes, it treads familiar ground, but with enough authenticity to put it head and shoulders over other recent classical retellings.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns. This account of a young woman’s negotiation of the power politics of her Northern Irish neighbourhood was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. Burns’s elliptic writing is both infuriating and illuminating; I can’t stop thinking about the way in which she conjures up paranoia.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I don’t seem to have been as blown away by this novella as other bloggers were; I think Moss has written better, notably The Tidal Zone and Signs for Lost Children. Nevertheless, this first-person narrative from teenage Silvie, who’s been taken by her controlling father to a recreated Iron Age camp in Northumbria, displays Moss’s characteristic intelligence and observational skill. It deserves to be on the shortlist.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. While this is not an technically brilliant novel in the same way as others on my wishlist (Jones’s debut, Leaving Atlantawas a lot better), Jones’s incredibly readable prose belies the skill of her writing. This novel focuses on an African-American couple, Celestial and Roy, who are torn apart after Roy is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. What I really liked about An American Marriage was the even-handedness with which Jones dealt with her main characters, and its thoughtful exploration of genuine moral dilemmas.
  • BONUS INSURANCE CHOICE! Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn. This little novella has been niggling at me since I finished it. While I initially found this series of flash fiction pieces set in communist Romania somewhat underwhelming, its final image – and the reason for its title – won’t leave me. The way in which van Llewyn weaves in the magical realism/folktale element here is very well done, and  reminiscent of Tea Obreht’s wonderful The Tiger’s Wife. I’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

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:

  • I think one of the Greek retellings will make it, and Circe seems to be getting more traction than The Silence of the Girls, even though it’s far inferior.
  • There’s so much buzz around Valeria Luiselli, and it would be nice for the Prize to shortlist someone from a Latin American background, so I think Lost Children Archive will make it through, despite my personal misgivings.
  • It seems like it might finally be Sarah Moss’s moment, so I think Ghost Wall will be shortlisted.
  • Freshwater has the dual advantages of being written by the Prize’s first non-binary longlistee, and drawing expertly on Igbo belief.
  • My sense is that one of the longlisted novels that deal with black oppression in the US will also make it through, and I can only hope that the Prize has the sense to make it An American Marriage.
  • Finally, I was torn between two Irish novelsNormal People and Milkman, for the final slot, but felt that Burns’ examination of cold civil war might edge it.

This would also leave us with a nicely balanced shortlist that reflects the racial diversity of the longlist. I would actually be quite happy with this shortlist, though it isn’t my ideal, so hopefully I’ll be proved right!

EDIT 29/4/19: The actual shortlist is here!

shortlist-WP-400x270

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with this. Three that I predicted, three that I wanted, six that I’ve read (!), and my two frontrunners, Milkman and The Silence of the Girls, still in play! While I wasn’t sure there was much depth to My Sister, The Serial Killer, it’s definitely a memorable read, and while Circe didn’t convince me as a whole, Miller’s prose is wonderful, and there are some very strong chapters and scenes. The only title I can’t really get behind is Ordinary People, which I thought was middle-brow and mediocre. However, there were certainly much weaker titles on the longlist, and Evans is not a bad writer by any means. Poor Sarah Moss has been slighted once again, and I’m still going to seek out Sally Rooney’s latest. But I’m looking forward to see who wins the Prize when the result is announced on the 5th June, though I’m finding the winner very hard to predict – Circe? Silence of the Girls? An American Marriage?

What are your thoughts on my shortlist predictions and wishlist, and the official shortlist itself? Who do you think will win the Prize this year?

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #4: Remembered & Bottled Goods

Onwards! This is the last pair of Women’s Prize reviews I’ll be able to fit in before the shortlist is announced on 29th April (I still haven’t been able to read Normal People, so it had BETTER be shortlisted just saying). I’ll be posting my own wishlist before then, probably this weekend.

614+q6CHzgL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

Yvonne Battle Felton’s debut, Remembered, operates a dual timeline. In Philadelphia in 1910, Spring is sitting by the bedside of her injured son, Edward, who has been charged with deliberately driving a streetcar into a department store. As Spring tells him the story of his grandmothers and mothers, we jump back in time to antebellum America and the experience of being enslaved. There’s also a familiar ghostly element to the story, as Spring’s dead sister, Tempe, sits beside her and comments on the tale she’s telling, occasionally summoning visions to give us glimpses of scenes Spring wasn’t privy to, such as the plan that led up to Edward’s protest (I’m afraid this device felt less magical to me and more a rather clumsy way of adding an additional point of view). In this, Remembered most obviously recalls Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Singwhich was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize and also dealt with the legacy of slavery, as well as Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved.

I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Elle’s blog about the recent popularity of novels that explore the experiences of enslaved people, whether that’s in a C19th/C20th American context, as with the examples above, or focusing on the C18th/C19th transatlantic slave trade, such as Esi Eduygan’s Washington BlackAndrea Levy’s The Long Song, Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming, and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money (the latter is also the only recent example I can think of written by a white person). Most obviously, this trend is well overdue, and it also makes perfect sense that in the wake of movements such as Black Lives Matter, black writers are being drawn to explore the structural roots of modern racism. I also recognise that while Battle-Felton was writing this novel, the willingness of publishers to suddenly foreground narratives of slavery was hardly something she could have predicted. Yet, having said all this, it’s still the case that Remembered addresses a story that’s becoming familiar, and I’m not sure what it brings to the table. As I commented in my review of Rachel Seiffert’s The Boy in Winterlonglisted for last year’s Women’s Prize, which deals with the round-up of Jews in the Ukraine in 1941 by the SS; there has to be a compelling reason to rehearse these traumatic histories, especially when black writers and readers have emphasised that they don’t just want to see stories about slavery and black suffering.

And sadly, I didn’t feel that Battle-Felton’s writing was up to this task. There are two compelling ideas at the heart of Remembered. First, the streetcar incident as a deliberate act of resistance to racial discrimination, and second, the plantation where Spring and Tempe grow up, which is said to be cursed; no live babies can be born there, and it turns out that the enslaved women are deliberately taking contraceptive measures. Both these plots foreground the agency of black people long before the inception of the civil rights movement. However, both are strangely under-explored. This, I think, comes down to the nuts and bolts of Battle-Felton’s prose; point-of-view switches are not handled well, it’s really difficult to get a sense of time passing, and some key incidents in the novel are just confusing. This becomes particularly problematic in an especially brutal scene near the beginning of the narrative; this scene is, deliberately, horrific, but because of the weak writing, it tips over into what feels like exploitative melodrama. While I admire Battle-Felton’s intentions, this is not a strong entry on the Women’s Prize longlist.

61L211Lg2+L

A shorter review for a very short novel. Bottled Goods, which is also a debut, has been described as a ‘novella-in-flash’; the novel is divided into very short sections that make big chronological jumps, and also plays with format; one section is a table, another is solely dialogue, some are in first person, others in third. Set in communist Romania in the 1970s, the novella focuses on primary school teacher Alina, who falls under suspicion after her brother-in-law defects to the west and she fails to report a pupil caught with a copy of a subversive magazine. There’s a touch of magical realism, but Sophie van Llewyn holds it in the right balance, making Bottled Goods intriguing but grounded. Nevertheless, despite the strength of van Llewyn’s writing, this isn’t one of my favoured contenders for the shortlist either, although I’m glad that I ultimately decided to read it. I’m not convinced that a series of interlinked flash fiction pieces works in the same way an interlinked collection of short stories can; the strength of flash is its ability to conjure a world in very few words, and as these stories don’t need to do that, because character and situation have already been established, they can feel needlessly short. A number of individual pieces are very arresting, but not all of the pieces attain this standard. Overall, I was left feeling that this novella was simply too slight to make enough of an impression. I hope van Llewyn writes something else soon, however, because she’s clearly an original and skilled writer.

Late Spring Reading

I’m still working my way through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I’ve now read all of the titles I planned to read before the shortlist announcement except Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant – the library just isn’t coming through for me! So, I’ve decided to change my strategy, as I want to get as many of these read before the shortlist is announced on the 29th April. I’m going to buy myself a copy of Normal People, as I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it. Then, as I’ve read some pretty poor reviews of Number One Chinese Restaurant and some pretty good reviews of Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (plus, I love the fact she’s written this tiny literary novella for a tiny press, and yet says her favourite book/s are A Song of Ice and Fire), I’m going to read Bottled Goods instead. Therefore, I won’t be reading Number One… (or The Pisces, Swan Song or Praise Song for the Butterflies) unless it’s shortlisted, which I doubt it will be.

In the meantime, a round-up of some non-Women’s Prize reading:

40626481

In retrospect, everything else in The Dollmaker was overshadowed for me by the hauntingly brilliant long quotation that prefaces the novel, taken from an 1897 article called ‘A Study of Dolls’, co-authored by the famous American psychologist of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall. Here’s a little bit of it:

90 children mentioned burial, their average age being nine; 80 mentioned funerals, 73 imagined their dolls dead, 30 dug up dolls after burial to see if they had gone to heaven, or simply to get them back. Of these 11 dug them up the same day… 12 dolls came to death by accidental bumps and fractures, 1 burst, 1 died of a melted face, 2 were drowned (1 a paper doll)… 30 children had never imagined dolls dead. This parents often forbid… In 21 cases there was death but no burial; in 10, funerals but no burials; in 8, funerals but no death.

This is so ridiculous and beautiful, the kind of inadvertent poetry that you sometimes find in Victorian social studies, that The Dollmaker was never going to live up to it. Ultimately, I admired the craft and intelligence with which this novel was written, but it wasn’t really my thing.

Andrew Garvie, who has dwarfism, has spent his life collecting and making dolls. When he receives a letter from Bramber Winters, a woman living in an institution on Bodmin Moor, about his collection, this begins an enthusiastic correspondence between them. Andrew sets off on a journey across England to finally meet Bramber, and on the way, reads a book of Polish stories that she’s recommended to him by the fictional Ewa Chaplin. Chaplin’s stories are littered with characters that might be considered ‘freaks’ in nineteenth-century parlance, from a range of people who also have dwarfism to a woman whose fingers have been frozen by rheumatoid arthritis and a woman born without one of her eyes. This engages Andrew’s sympathies; recently, he has been restoring ‘monsters’, damaged dolls who don’t have perfect faces and bodies, because he sees no reason why dolls shouldn’t reflect reality.

A number of Chaplin’s stories are scattered throughout the novel, and most are riveting; subtly disturbing, they all suggest worlds that aren’t quite our own. In contrast, Andrew and Bramber’s plot-line is rooted more firmly in reality than I’d expected, and I longed for more than a hint of the speculative. The dolls themselves are more symbolically significant throughout the novel than anything else, and I wished there had been a lot more about Andrew’s work as a dollmaker, picking up on the hint of creepiness in the Stanley Hall quote. And while the Chaplin stories worked for me, they made the pace of the novel very erratic, as it took me a little while to get into each one, meaning I’d often put the novel aside for some time when a new story appeared. Without the stories, on the other hand, this is a familiar tale of two misfits finding love through letter, and Bramber never really came alive for me; I’d have preferred the whole thing to be about Andrew, his dolls, and Ewa Chaplin’s stories.

Writers often complain that reviewers review the book they wanted to read rather than the book the writer wanted to write, and that’s definitely at play for me here; I SO wanted this to be a more alternative-reality sort of novel that I kept on making up elaborate twists that didn’t come to pass (Andrew and Bramber are actually dolls in a complicated child’s game!). However, this is a very well-written novel that I’d recommend to those to whom the synopsis appeals, and as I hear Allan’s earlier novels lean more towards the SF, I’ll definitely be checking those out (The Rift is already on my 2019 reading list).

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

42923055

College friends Jack and Wynn are canoeing the Maskwa River in Northern Canada. Wynn is the most experienced with whitewater, while Jack is an expert on wilderness survival and hunting; they don’t anticipate problems. However, when they find themselves in the path of a forest fire and overhear a couple arguing in the middle of the night, they are unwillingly plunged into a life-or-death journey down the river.

This novel, the first I’ve read by Peter Heller, sits somewhere between literary fiction and thriller; the UK cover is somewhat misleading in depicting it as a pure white-knuckle ride. Heller spends some time establishing the landscape and the relationship between the two men, so the plot doesn’t really kick in until we’re about a third of the way through. However, this is a relatively short novel, so I didn’t find this to be a problem; just don’t expect this to be thrills from page one. Once The River gets going, it’s properly gripping, and Heller’s knowledge of the wilderness is evident. It reminded me of Erica Ferencik’s equally engrossing The River at Night, with perhaps a greater touch of realism.

The ‘literariness’ of this novel is a little more questionable. Heller’s writing is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Frazier, but less deliberately meditative. However, The River doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say; the one enduring theme is the contrast between Wynn’s idealism and Jack’s cynicism, which is rather simplistically resolved. The novel also falls back on cliched gender roles; of the two women mentioned prominently in it, one, Jack’s dead mother, appears only in flashbacks as a motivation for Jack’s actions, while the other is a helpless victim of male violence. In short, I’d have liked this to either have gone full-on ‘thriller’, or to have had greater depth; although I enjoyed reading it, it sits a bit uneasily between the two.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 16th.

41HtmI1bodL

Lucy grew up in a working-class family in Sunderland, attending a comprehensive school in nearby Washington, so when she heads to university at King’s College, London, in the mid-00s, she has to adjust to the new landscape around her, abandoning fake tan, sequins and Asti for cigarettes, leather jackets and leopard-print tights. Later, having received her degree, Lucy will flee to her grandfather’s home in Donegal, seeking out the silence of a very different world.

Saltwater, Jessica Andrews’s debut novel, is told in non-linear fragments, although the four parts of the book roughly divide up the phases of Lucy’s life, from childhood to adolescence to studenthood to the aftermath. However, I didn’t find anything especially original in either the prose or the structure. This kind of storytelling is commonplace in literary fiction – think early Maggie O’Farrell – as, increasingly, are the very short chapters. Saltwater is clearly based very closely on Andrews’s own experiences, and while I’m not against fashionable autofiction per se, it has to be really wonderful to convince me, e.g. Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.

As someone who’s recently moved to Newcastle and who has family on both sides who grew up in the north-east, I loved the idea of a novel that explored working-class experience outside London. However, Saltwater either gives us precise, repetitive litanies of sweets, toys, drinks and bands, or feels irritatingly vague. Some of the sections that explore Lucy’s adolescent experiences, such as hanging out in Exhibition Park, are a bit more satisfying, but these aren’t typical of the novel as a whole. Having read some of Andrews’s articles about being the first person in her family to go to university, I found these more illuminating than the fictional version represented here. Andrews’s writing is readable enough, but I hope she pushes herself further next time.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on May 19th.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, #3/Wellcome Book Prize Longlist, 2019: Freshwater

71tZk8KcqPL

One does not challenge their chi to a wrestling match.

Born in Nigeria to Igbo and Tamil parents, Ada is inhabited by ogbanje, an Igbo term that might translate as ‘evil spirits’ but, as Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s debut novel, makes clear, is actually much more complicated. ‘Ogbanje’ are also ‘children who come and go’, or what we might think of as changeling children, children of gods who don’t properly belong in this world. To be an ‘ogbanje’, as Ada is, is to be marked out as special. Ada is also a practicing Christian, but while her internal ogbanje recognise the presence of what they call Yshwa, or Christ, they don’t perceive him as having any particular status, and have their own take on his motives: ‘while he loves humans… what they forget is that he loves them as a god does, which is to say, with a taste for suffering’. One of Ada’s selves, Asughara, is particularly resentful of Yshwa, whom they call ‘that fucking resurrected bastard’ after losing an argument with him.

If this all sounds a little metaphysical, you’re not alone; I approached Freshwater with some trepidation. However, I ended up engaging with it a lot more easily than I expected. Emezi’s writing makes the conflict between Ada and her various selves real and concrete, more like the interactions between the gods of a Greek myth than the inner monologue of a person with multiple personality disorder. This is obviously deliberate. One of the things that’s most brilliant about Freshwater is its refusal to line up Ada’s experience with Western psychological or psychoanalytical categories. Insofar as these diagnoses are useful as a way of understanding our experience, Emezi suggests that Ada can most effectively come to terms with herself by using the language of Igbo belief. Because of this, and despite its longlisting for the Wellcome Book PrizeFreshwater doesn’t feel like a novel about mental illness but more a novel about coming to terms with the relationship between self and world.

Emezi writes particularly well on Ada’s struggle to live in a physical body, observations that seem to be drawn from Emezi’s own experience (they identify as non-binary). This manifests not exactly as gender dysphoria but as an inability to reconcile how one sees oneself with how others see us. After Ada has a breast reduction, she starts wearing dresses more often; one of her friends can’t understand this, saying ‘Most people get it done to be more masculine’. But for Ada, the surgery wasn’t intended to help her fit into a particular gender category more easily but to complicate people’s impressions of her. If Freshwater doesn’t quite work at times, it’s because of its closeness to Emezi’s own life, and the redundancies that inevitably creep in when you try and compress life into fiction (there seem to be too many temporary lovers, and I wasn’t sure what purpose Ada’s siblings served). Nevertheless, this is a startling novel that deserves its place on both the Women’s Prize and Wellcome Prize longlists – and I wish it had gone forward to the Wellcome shortlist.