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?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The End

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 will be announced this evening! This is a short summary post. My round-up of the whole longlist can be found here.

The book I want to win

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The book I think will win

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(though I’m 50/50 with Girl, Woman, Other, this is who I’d bet on if I was asked to bet).

The book I least want to win

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My overall ranking of the shortlist, with links to my reviews

  1. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill
  4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  5. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  6. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Who do you think will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020? And who do you want to win?

Update: And the winner is…

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Called it! I predicted this result because:

  • The Mirror and The Light is probably going to win the Booker, and Girl, Woman, Other has already won the Booker, so the Women’s Prize want a book they can call their own, especially after Hamnet didn’t make the Booker longlist.
  • I didn’t see any of the other three books on the shortlist as plausible options, even though I personally liked Weather a lot more than this one.
  • Hamnet is timely (plague!) and allows the Women’s Prize to make up for having unfairly neglected Maggie O’Farrell all these years.

My feelings: chuffed that I guessed right, sad that O’Farrell has won for what I think is one of the weakest of her novels, pleased that she has been recognised as she’s generally a writer I rate, and baffled that (even given the political considerations above) that anyone could think this is better than The Mirror and the Light.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Final Thoughts

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I’ve now finished reading all sixteen titles on the Women’s Prize longlist – so I’m going to post my round-up even though the actual winner won’t be announced until 9th September.

If 2019 was a below-par year for the Women’s Prize, 2020, for me, was a new low. It’s made me reconsider how much energy I should put into the prize next year – much as I enjoy shadowing the prize alongside my fellow bloggers, I might return to only reading the shortlist, plus any longlisted titles that interest me.

NEVERTHELESS, there are some gems on the longlist and shortlist that deserve celebrating. Here is my  ranking of the sixteen longlisted titles, with a link to, and line from, each of my reviews.

In order of preference:

  • The Mirror and the Light: ‘this is [Mantel’s] masterpiece’.
  • Girl, Woman, Other: ‘It’s a joy to see black second-wave feminism being discussed so seriously and yet so effortlessly in a fictional context… an essential and vital read.’
  • Weather: ‘At times, I felt like [Offill] was rummaging around in my brain… profoundly disturbing but also very funny’.
  • How We Disappeared: ‘compelling… [considers] questions of truth, family and storytelling across the longue durée’.
  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: ‘the first two-thirds are overlong… [but] the harrowing ending justifies much of the build-up… I’ve rarely read a final chapter that stayed with me so long’.
  • Queenie: ‘funny and frank… Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed… and the ending is nicely unexpected’.
  • Fleishman Is In Trouble: ‘a mess… [but] I found myself unexpectedly warming to this novel… I can see why it’s attracted so many hot takes’.
  • The Dutch Houseas ever, Patchett balances the emotional crises of her novel perfectly… [but] I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed’.
  • Hamnet: ‘O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters.’
  • Actress: ‘Enright’s prose is always impeccable and frequently, startlingly good… [but] the unleavened misery of these characters was just too much for me’.
  • Dominicana: ‘I felt that Cruz did a good job of communicating the inner world of this very young woman… [but] the literary model that [she] has chosen is painfully familiar’.
  • A Thousand Ships: ‘[Haynes] delivers some brilliant set-piece chapters, but… this novel… felt too meta, too self-aware, and too convinced that it’s doing something more original than it actually is.’
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had: ‘I actually found this quite a fun, trashy read… but it’s not a novel that should be anywhere near prize lists.’
  • Red At The Bone: ‘Its prose is competent and I enjoyed the warmth that Woodson brings to her characters, but I have rarely read anything that felt so pointless.’
  • Girl: ‘I found myself thinking “what’s the point?” not because I wasn’t affected by the brutality that O’Brien depicts, but because I wasn’t sure why this had to be a novel at all.’
  • Nightingale Point: ‘In short: what were the judges thinking?’

Who do I want to win?

Hilary Mantel sweeps all before her with The Mirror and The Light. I’d bet on a third Booker win, as well.

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Who do I think will win?

Precisely because that third Booker win is in the offing, I wouldn’t put my money on the judges actually giving this prize to Mantel, although I do think she’s in with a strong chance. Interestingly, I think the prize is fairly predictable this year. Aside from Mantel, there are only two shortlisted titles I see as possible winners:

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Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other would be a very worthy winner of the Women’s Prize, and it would make up for that joint Booker win. Ironically, I think if she had won the Booker outright, she’d actually be in with less of a chance here, due to prize politics, so there must be strong odds on her.

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However, despite the superiority of the two previous titles, the book I think is most likely to actually take the prize is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. This is a choice that would clearly distinguish the Women’s Prize from other book prizes and make up for their neglect of O’Farrell in the past, and the book is also relatively timely (grief and plague). As an O’Farrell fan, I could live with this result, although it’s a shame that she’s finally getting attention for what I think is one of her weakest novels.

When the winner is announced on the 9th September, I will write a brief post on my reaction.

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: The Mirror and The Light

It feels like a very long time already since I wrote about this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I’m back with a review of the final title on the longlist, which has since advanced to the shortlist.

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Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, following the career of one of the most significant advisors of Henry VIII’s reign, needs no introduction. The two previous books in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodieswere intensely acclaimed, with prize juries pretty much flinging awards in their direction, and this final installment was so eagerly awaited that its publication was announced through a mysterious billboard in Leicester Square. Nevertheless, it’s taken me a little while to warm up to this series, which I read as it was released. Wolf Hall, in particular, which I’ve read one and a half times due to being unable to finish it the first time, felt like it required a level of investment from the reader that wasn’t entirely repaid. I found it difficult to understand how anyone could negotiate the intricacies of its plot without a detailed knowledge of Henrician politics (I have a history degree, and studied Tudor England and Stuart Britain as an undergraduate, but I didn’t focus closely on anything before Elizabeth I, and I admit, I struggled!) When I read Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel’s project made a lot more sense to me; this taut novel hits the ground running, building up the cast that was introduced in Wolf Hall and executing the Boleyns with vicious brilliance. And the strength and intelligence of Mantel’s prose, and of her historical insight, was never in doubt. But I was still concerned that it had taken Mantel six hundred and fifty pages to set up the dominos that she knocks down in the sequel, and the dependance of these two books on each other made it hard for me to truly adore Bring Up The Bodies.

The Mirror and The Light, however, is in a class of its own. Perhaps this sounds ridiculous given the huge success of the first two books, but for me, Mantel’s finally cracked it; she tells a very long and intricate story that doesn’t abandon any of the commitments she made in Wolf Hall or Bring Up The Bodies, which expects a lot from its reader and yet gives so much back. This book may be nine hundred pages long, but in many ways, it’s a lot more accessible than its predecessors. I don’t think you actually have to have read either of the previous Cromwell novels nor have a strong knowledge of Tudor history to be totally immersed in this wonderful novel. As long as you know that Cromwell rose from a humble background to become an advisor to Henry, that he was a big fan of previous advisor Cardinal Wolsey, that Cromwell was instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, and a supporter of Henry’s break with Rome and of reformed religion, you’d probably be fine. Mantel also references the previous novels frequently throughout her text; for example, Cromwell is haunted by the final days of George Boleyn despite his expressed disgust for his character, and relives them several times. While I don’t think this was her intention, it’s handy for the new reader or for readers (like myself) who read the other two novels long enough ago to have forgotten a lot.

This also points to one central concern of The Mirror and The Light: time and memory. There are a number of long, beautiful interludes in the novel where Cromwell explicitly reflects on the subject, and where the past and present collapse as he views England as a palimpsest:

Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles… when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight… From the top of Wayneflete’s tower, the countryside beneath him was more imagined than real, stretching away in the darkness. It will soon be All Hallows, he thought. It seemed to him time had shuddered and slowed, as if the transit of heavenly bodies was retarded by the catastrophe that had overtaken his master and all England.

While I was reading this novel, I also read a co-authored article in the American Historical Review about the concept of ‘generation’ where the early modernist Alexandra Walsham argues that

the Protestant Reformation… profoundly reconfigured the relationship between the living and the dead: one consequence of its theology was to sever the inhabitants of these two realms from each other and to deny that there could be any kind of communication or interaction between them.[1]

This statement haunted me while I inhabited the world of Thomas Cromwell, who was as fierce an advocate as any of removing customs such as indulgences. (Indulgences imagined that, for example, the wealthy could donate money to charitable works and reduce the amount of time deceased relatives had to spend in purgatory – and so their abolition suggested that the living could no longer give any help to the dead.) Nevertheless, Cromwell is haunted by the dead, including those, like George Boleyn, where he was at least partly responsible for their fall; the reference to All Hallows Eve in the quotation from the novel above refers to the idea that this was a day on which the veil between the worlds was especially thin.

The Mirror and the Light also expands upon the vision of early modern monarchy that was imagined in Bring Up The Bodies, where, in one especially memorable scene, Henry is believed to be dead in a jousting accident, and the court is shaken to its foundations. As I wrote in my review of Bring Up The Bodies, Mantel explores Henry’s kingship through ‘the vivid early modern metaphor of the king’s earthly body becoming parallel to the kingdom’s single body, united in law and loyalty to the monarch’ and, in The Mirror and the Light, because of Cromwell’s ever-increasing closeness to the monarch, we see more of the toll this takes on Henry. Mantel’s characterisation of Henry is superb: he’s both very smart and dangerously mercurial, unable to understand the impact that a chance statement can have on the politics of his court. But while not excusing his personal brutality, we also see the weight he carries, with the health of his ageing body directly identified with the health of the realm. As he says to Cromwell, ‘All my life, to be a prince… to unmake myself as a man in order to make myself a king… When I was a young man I suppose I showed the calf of my leg to an ambassador and said, “There, has your French king a calf as good as that?” And my words were reported, and all Europe laughed at me… But being young I asked myself, if God had formed Francois better than me, which prince did He favour most?’

It’s impossible to do such a novel justice in a single review (and this one is long enough!); it took me a month to read it and I still miss it now it’s over. I won’t be surprised if Mantel sweeps all the prizes again with this one, and she would deserve it, for this is her masterpiece.

My next Women’s Prize for Fiction post, on Monday, will be my ranking of all sixteen titles on the longlist, and an extremely surprising announcement of which book I’d like to win the prize this year (Thomas Cromwell Rules OK).

[1] Abosede George, Clive Glaser, Margaret D. Jacobs, Chitra Joshi, Emily Marker, Alexandra Walsham, Wang Zheng, and Bernd Weisbrod, ‘AHR Conversation: Each Generation Writes Its Own History of Generations,’ American Historical Review 123, 5, December 2018, p.1522. [paywalled]

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number sixteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; WeatherFleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Boneand The Most Fun We Ever Had.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My logic, in order of certainty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Red at the Bone and The Most Fun We Ever Had

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I’m not really sure what to say about Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson’s second novel for adults. Its prose is competent and I enjoyed the warmth that Woodson brings to her characters, but I have rarely read anything that felt so pointless. This pocket-sized family saga ostensibly centres on sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony at her affluent African-American grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone in 2001, but is really focused on the previous generations, flicking between point-of-view chapters from Melody’s immediate relatives. Melody’s mother, Iris, became pregnant with her when she was only fifteen, and in a satisfying reversal of the usual teen pregnancy plot (I’ll give Woodson points for this), found it difficult to deal with her unwanted responsibilities, leaving her ex-boyfriend, Aubrey, to step up to fatherhood. While Iris escapes to college at Oberlin, Aubrey and Melody form a deep and loving bond. We also hear from the two different sides of the family, discovering that Sabe’s mother and grandparents fled from the 1921 Tulsa massacre, and that Aubrey’s own mother died shortly after Melody’s birth. And that’s pretty much it, except for the introduction of an unexpected external event at the end of the novel which felt not only melodramatic but downright peculiar; as if it had accidentally escaped from a different kind of book altogether. If you ignore its final few pages, there’s nothing terribly wrong with Red at the Bone, but as a number of other reviewers have commented, it’s infinitely forgettable.

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The Most Fun We Ever Had, Claire Lombardo’s debut novel, is also a family saga that features teenage pregnancy, but it’s almost three times as long as Red At The Bone and nearly as pointless. Set in Chicago, this novel follows Marilyn and David Sorenson and their four adult daughters through a turbulent year as their second oldest daughter reveals that she once had a baby, Jonah, that she gave up for adoption, and that he’s now a homeless teenager who’s been unceremoniously dumped back into their lives. I’d been told that Fleishman Is In Trouble was about a group of unlikeable people, but the Sorensons easily win that contest; none of them appear to have any redeeming features whatsoever except perhaps the two youngest daughters, Lisa and Grace, and even then, I had problems with both characters. The parents project an image of a close, romantic couple who care deeply for their children, but their family is blinkered by privilege, horrible to anybody who doesn’t fit their precise standards of what is acceptable, and almost as nasty to each other. A cleverer novelist like Lionel Shriver would have torn this apart, but Lombardo’s writing just bobs along. I believe she’s aware of how unpleasant her characters are – indeed, Jonah’s presence in the novel seems to have been engineered to give us an outside perspective on these people – but she never does anything with it. I actually found this quite a fun, trashy read (I enjoyed reading it much more than Red At The Bone) so I guess in that sense, it does have a point, but it’s not a novel that should be anywhere near prize lists.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers fourteen and fifteen. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand ShipsHamnet; Actress; Weather; and Fleishman Is In Trouble.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Fleishman Is In Trouble

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I’ve rarely read so many reviews of a novel before reading it as I had for Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut, Fleishman Is In Trouble, which has attracted a lot of mainstream acclaim but has also come in for a good deal of criticism, especially from the blogging community. The novel focuses principally on Toby Fleishman, a hepatologist living in New York who has recently separated from his wife, Rachel, and is trying to juggle the care of his two pre-teen children with his unexpectedly exciting explorations of internet dating apps when Rachel goes missing. Toby has a clear narrative of why his marriage failed. Rachel was too focused on her career, he thinks, never had enough time for him and the kids, and not-so-secretly despised the fact that he preferred focusing on patient care to seeking promotion within his field. However, two-thirds of the way through this novel, we hear a little more of Rachel’s side of the story, and see how Toby – and Rachel – may have been deliberately deceiving themselves.

In a number of ways, Fleishman Is In Trouble is a mess. Firstly, it utilises a totally unnecessary framing device where, however hard you thematically squint at it, you can’t quite see why it was needed. The novel is technically narrated by Libby, an old college friend of Toby’s, and there’s some suggestion that she may have made a great deal of this up, given that she obviously doesn’t have access to Toby and Rachel’s inner thoughts, and is toying with the idea of writing a novel about her friend group. Secondly, the flip from Toby to Rachel doesn’t quite make sense, structurally, partly because it occurs so late in the novel and partly because a lot of this final section still focuses on Toby.  This is counterbalanced by the fact that Brodesser-Akner skilfully signals to us that Toby is an unreliable narrator, so we’ve already been reading between the lines of his narrative before we actually reach the ‘Rachel’ section of the novel, but this structural choice highlights the fact that the first two sections are just too long.

Nevertheless, I found myself unexpectedly warming to this novel in a way I’d never expected to warm to a literary novel about the breakdown of a marriage among New York’s privileged elite. I’d expected it to be a simplistic exposé of how awful a person Toby is, but Brodesser-Akner writes both Toby and Rachel as blinkered and selfish. Toby doesn’t get that, while he receives all the kudos for being such a hands-on dad, Rachel is still doing a huge amount of organisational work to make sure her children’s lives run smoothly behind the scenes, even if she doesn’t pick the kids up from school. Rachel is desperate to live an affluent, aspirational lifestyle and convinces herself that Toby wants this too, and that he’s selfish for forcing her to be the higher earner; however, Toby seems pretty content to live within his means, pointing out that as a doctor in a respected specialism, his salary is not exactly low. The crux of this novel, I think, occurs when Toby is standing by the bedside of a dying patient, reflecting on how her husband has both stayed by her side since she was hospitalised and has been cheating on her: ‘Toby watched him, unable to reconcile any of this. Was he a piece of shit or did he love his wife? Was he having an affair with her friend, who helped break up the marriage? Were we all everything?’

While not telling the reader who we are meant to sympathise with, and recognising that we are all sometimes terrible and sometimes exceptional people, might seem like a low bar for a novel to clear, I don’t think many writers approach this project with as much seriousness as Brodesser-Akner does in Fleishman Is In Trouble. Even when certain characters are allowed to not be all one thing or another, writers often signal to us who we should really be invested in. And perhaps this helps to explain the tangle of the framing narrative and the clunky structure of the novel as a whole; Brodesser-Akner is truly determined that we shouldn’t be able to fall back on easy judgments. Whenever we think we know whose ‘side’ we’re on, she executes another about-turn. I can’t totally agree that this novel was one of the must-read books of 2019, but I can see why it’s attracted so many different hot takes.

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Actress and Weather

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In Anne Enright’s seventh novel, Actress, Norah narrates the story of her relationship with her mother, Katherine O’Dell, an English-Irish star of stage and screen who became notorious in her later years after shooting a filmmaker in the foot. Actress possesses all the gifts that I encountered in the one previous Enright novel I’ve read, The Gathering. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Enright’s prose is always impeccable and frequently, startlingly good. Two particular examples that stood out for me were both about motherhood. Trying to conceive a child, Norah muses, ‘secretly, I did not think I was capable of having a baby. I could not align my wanting. If I could just want the right thing, I thought, and at the right time, then my body would give in and want it too’. Finding her real father would be ‘the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body.’ Later in the novel, when her daughter, Pamela, is grown, Norah stands in her childhood room and reflects, ‘I like to think of her growing up in here, with infinite slowness, filling the length of the bed.’ However, you could probably open Actress on any page and find a gem. Enright will never resort to lazy shorthand; the world and the characters she evokes in this novel are utterly distinctive.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t warm to Actress any more than I could warm to The Gathering. It feels like a massive critical failure to say that a novel is ‘too grim’, but that’s what keeps coming back to me with Enright’s work. I can’t really warm to her literary projects, because there’s something about her view of the world that I just don’t like. With Actress, this is partly because of a mismatch between my expectations and the novel she actually chose to write – we’re told Katherine was a star, but any actual success she had in her career is blink and you’ll miss it. I can see how this may have been absolutely deliberate; Norah certainly lingers on the more unpleasant aspects of her mother’s character. But Katherine’s stardom was the bit I most wanted to read about! Ultimately, the unleavened misery of these characters was just too much for me, so while I have to admire Enright’s skill (and the memorable front cover), this wasn’t a book I enjoyed reading or will return to.

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It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.

Jenny Offill’s Weather was already a timely novel, but since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become almost unbearably prescient. The New York narrator’s disconnected musings were, when this was published way back at the beginning of February, knitted together by the fear of catastrophic climate change; however, Lizzie is more afraid for her son and her niece than for herself. ‘If climate departure happens in New York when predicted, Eli and Iris could – “Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?”‘ Now, of course, a kind of disaster seems to have arrived much faster than even the fearful Lizzie could have predicted, and this book feels weirdly, brilliantly, both pre- and post-pandemic. Offill could never have anticipated this timing, but I believe that one of the reasons this holds up so well is the strength and truth of her writing. At times, I felt like she was rummaging around in my brain.

I can see how some might feel that Weather reads like a series of isolated observations, all very profound and quotable but not adding up to anything meaningful as a whole. However, that wasn’t how I experienced it. I felt as if I was following Lizzie’s thought patterns, understanding instinctively why she flips from one set of concerns to another, because I could see how they were tied together. A novel that deals with human extinction should theoretically struggle to get the reader to care about the other mundane details of its protagonist’s life, but Offill shows us how nobody can shed these kinds of concerns even when they’re trying to face up to the end of days. Lizzie’s touch of osteoarthritis reminds her as vividly of her own mortality as the ‘prepper’ literature she’s absorbing: ‘Later, when I tell Ben the gout story, my voice is less jaunty than I intend. I make a little joke and the room steadies. But I saw his eyes. I know what he’s remembering. That time the dog’s muzzle went grey.’ Profoundly disturbing but also very funny, Weather is the surprise hit for me from the Women’s Prize longlist.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers eleven and twelve. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand Ships; and Hamnet.

For anyone who took part in my Twitter poll and is concerned that I seem to have forgotten to read Fleishman Is In Trouble; I started it first but it has been leapfrogged by a couple of shorter longlistees! I am enjoying it, but am reading it very slowly 🙂

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Hamnet

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Just like there is a Hamlet and a Hamnet, I feel there are two Hamnets: the novel that Maggie O’Farrell actually wrote, and the story that has been hyped to the back of beyond since its publication was first announced back in 2019. This makes it a difficult novel to review, because, if I’d just come across this book as ‘the next Maggie O’Farrell’, I think I’d have taken it more to my heart than I actually did. I understand why a publisher would want to try and push an author like O’Farrell to the next level; having utterly adored her last two books, her novel This Must Be The Place and her memoir I Am, I Am, I AmI was genuinely shocked to discover that, for example, she’s never been longlisted for the Women’s Prize before. I am a long-time admirer of O’Farrell’s understated but beautiful, observational prose, and I have read everything she’s ever written. Nevertheless – and perhaps because, unlike readers discovering her for the first time, I already know how good O’Farrell can be – I felt underwhelmed by Hamnet.

Hamnet is billed as telling the untold story of Shakespeare’s son, who died when he was only eleven years old, but I found this misleading in two ways. Firstly, I feel like it’s common knowledge that Shakespeare had a son who died young. Secondly, the book is really about Shakespeare’s wife, here called Agnes (Anne Hathaway was named as ‘Agnes’ in her father’s will – and I think it’s a clever choice by O’Farrell to use this name, giving herself some distance between the historical figure and her own creation). And unfortunately, I found that Agnes often fell into some familiar stereotypes, despite some transcendent moments, such as the scene when she is unable to wrap her son in his winding sheet, because it means she will never see his face again. I find historical novels that seek to tear down a man’s reputation as if that’s the only way to give the women in his life some agency intensely irritating – this was one of the reasons why I struggled with Madeline Miller’s Circebecause I didn’t like the way it treated Odysseus. Hamnet does not exactly do this. Shakespeare, never named in the text, is portrayed as a man who deeply loves his wife and children despite his long absences from home. However, there’s still a tendency to write Agnes into the story by writing him out, and I would have preferred a novel that felt more equally split between the two parents.

O’Farrell brings early modern England wonderfully to life in very few words. The setting of the story is completely captivating. However, I didn’t feel that Hamnet achieved the same kind of depth in its characterisation. I’ve already suggested that Agnes feels a little stale; Hamnet himself, alongside his siblings, never became truly real to me. For this reason, the novel never broke my heart in the way it set out to do. O’Farrell writes so well about grief, but I found myself admiring her writing from afar rather than grieving with the characters. Rather than being glued to this book, I kept on thinking back to a different novel that enthralled me as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows. The two books are not exactly the same. Cooper tells the story of a young actor, Nat, who is thrown back in time to Elizabethan England and ends up as part of Shakespeare’s company. However, King of Shadows also portrays Shakespeare as a grieving father, forging a special connection with Nat, who is a fatherless boy – and it was the sharpness of the emotion in that book that I found myself craving.

Hamnet is absolutely worth reading, especially if you haven’t read O’Farrell before. However, I don’t think it’s the ‘novel of her career’ [© publicity]. Selfishly, I’d hope that’s a novel she’s not yet written! But if we’re confined to her existing corpus, then I’d say that This Must Be The Place sees her writing at the height of her powers; that The Hand That First Held Mine is genuinely moving in a way that for me, this novel was not; and that After You’d Gone might not be the most accomplished of her books, but it remains an astonishing debut. But as I say, I still feel confident that the best is yet to come.

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

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: A Thousand Ships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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