Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Final Thoughts

I’ve now finished reading the ten titles from the Women’s Prize longlist that I wanted to read, including all six titles on the shortlist – so I’m going to post my round-up.

Overall, I think this was a stronger year for the Prize than 2019 or 2020, if not quite reaching the heights of 2018. Notably, all six shortlisted titles, even the ones I did not personally get on with, are distinguished by the quality and originality of their writing, which has not always been the case in previous years. Happily, this means that there’s no title on the shortlist that would totally outrage me if it won, which has definitely not been the case in previous years.

My overall ranking of the ten titles I’ve read is as follows, with quotes from my reviews. Shortlisted titles are starred (*).

  • *Transcendent Kingdom‘wise and thoughtful… thematically resonant… technically brilliant’
  • Consent‘I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why’
  • Detransition, Baby‘so clever and so interesting… [though] it feels rather hastily put together’
  • *Piranesi: ‘it didn’t enchant me quite as much as I expected… vivid and troubling’
  • *The Vanishing Half: a strong second novel that takes Bennett’s highly readable writing to the next level’
  • Exciting Times: really cleverly handled… although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it’
  • *How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House: ‘great potential depth… [but] its ending is arguably too neat’
  • Small Pleasures‘a lot to love… and a little that made me uncomfortable’
  • *No-One Is Talking About This: I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there’
  • *Unsettled Ground: a powerful writer inexplicably deciding to concern themselves with an incredibly dull story’

Looking back at my original post on the shortlist, this means that reading three extra shortlisted titles hasn’t actually changed my top six at all – and I’m only really glad to have read one of them (How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House). This, to me, confirms that my approach of only reading the longlisted titles that actually appealed to me this year was the right one.

The winner of the Women’s Prize 2021 will be announced on 8th September.

Who do I want to win? And who do I think will win? This year, it’s the same book:

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I know a lot of people are betting on The Vanishing Half, but I’m holding out hope that a judging panel that seems so interested in prose, structural experimentation and originality will do the right thing and give the Prize to Transcendent Kingdom, which stands head and shoulders above the rest of the shortlist.

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021? And who do you think will win?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2021: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

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Cherie Jones’s debut novel, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, starts with a grandmother telling a story to her granddaughter about two sisters, one of whom was ‘gifted with good sense’ while the other was ‘own-way and like to give the mother mouth’. The sisters are warned against entering the network of tunnels that riddle the ground, as ‘the tunnels is where bad men go where they die‘. In the way of stories, we know what will happen; the bad sister goes into the tunnel and her good sister tries to pull her back. The bad sister escapes, but at a price: she’s missing one of her arms. The granddaughter, Lala, is not especially impressed by this story, and tells her grandmother, Wilma, so:

Well I bet it not so bad having one arm.” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.”

Stupid girl,” says Wilma. “How she gonna sweep it?”

Set in Barbados in the mid 1980s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is a vividly painful exploration of how a violent fate haunts three generations of women. Wilma has her own explanation for why she, her daughter and her granddaughter have suffered so: ‘She assumes it is a curse… this way the Wilkinson women have with men, this ability to so bewitch a man that he becomes besotted.’ Wilma thinks that, like the bad sister, they all grow up too fast, and it is this premature sexuality that leads them into trouble. Jones shows us how this pattern of belief makes Wilma culpable in the fates of Lala and her mother Esme, as well as how the men who abuse them are themselves shaped by poverty.

Some reviewers have criticised How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House for being too schematic – its cast defined by what happens to them rather than by who they are as people – but that wasn’t exactly my experience of it. I felt that Jones’s characters did have great potential depth, although I wished she had given more page-time to exploring their inner lives. Jones has a gift for set-piece, and particular scenes showcase how much she does know about her characters; for example, when Wilma is tending to Esme after she’s been raped or when Lala walks out on the beach to braid hair. Lala’s abusive husband, Adan, is perhaps closest to caricature, displaying classic psychopath tropes as a boy, but that still isn’t all he is; when Lala is trying to remember how her mother used to sing her name, Adan ‘had sung her name in every tone he could think of to see if she would recognise it’. And Jones’s present-tense, fluid writing is perfectly suited to this story, moving effortlessly between a ring of characters who surround Lala.

I was surprised that so many reviewers, such as Rhiannon Lucy Coslett in the Guardian, describe this book as relentlessly miserable. It’s certainly a difficult read, but I didn’t find How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House especially grim compared to many other novels that have made it onto Women’s Prize shortlists and longlists in recent years. Indeed, its ending is arguably too neat and hopeful, sweeping Lala too easily away from this cycle of intergenerational violence without really answering the question it poses at the start: how do you carry on living when you have been so wounded by the world around you? How does the one-armed sister sweep her house?

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number ten. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, Detransition, Baby, No One Is Talking About This and Unsettled Ground.

This is also #8 of my 10 Books of Summer.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Unsettled Ground

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Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

The first thing to say is: I have rarely read a blurb that makes me less keen to read a novel than the blurb of Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. I’m not sure exactly what it is about it that makes it so uninteresting to me (the twee names? Twins? Still living with their mother at 51?) but I knew that I wouldn’t want to read this book as soon as I found out what it was about. Obviously I have now read it (this isn’t some weird sort of anti-review) but I certainly wouldn’t have done so had it not been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. All this is to say that you should probably take my views with a pinch of salt, and if you are more attracted to this blurb than I am, you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

Because the second thing to say is: Fuller can definitely write. I haven’t had the best luck with her books in the past (the only one I’ve enjoyed so far is Our Endless Numbered Days, which I thought was excellent, partly because it wasn’t so focused on the mundane), but I have never had a problem with her writing. Unfortunately, for me, even her  clear, clever prose couldn’t lift this story out of its doldrums. I recognised the social importance of the issues that she is tackling here and the suffering that results from being outside the system, unable to engage with the bureaucracy of claiming benefits or even paying in a cheque, especially when isolated in the countryside away from the kind of informal support networks that might be easier to access in a town or city. I could also see that the twins’ mother had deliberately forced them to become dependent on her, giving them little chance to learn these life skills.

However, I found both Jeanie and Julius so frustratingly helpless that it was impossible to sympathise with them. It makes sense that they don’t know how to engage with the welfare system, but why does Julius also have to get carsick whenever he gets in a vehicle, making it impossible for him to get much casual work? And while I understood Jeanie’s illiteracy and her fears of dealing with a bank, why could she not ask her casual employer to pay her in cash rather than giving her a cheque when she is desperate for money? I know the answer to this lies in the twins’ psychological state, but I wished Fuller hadn’t made them quite so trapped and hopeless.

My overall impression of this novel was of a powerful writer inexplicably deciding to concern themselves with an incredibly dull story; I’m not sure how Fuller managed to keep her own attention while writing this, and it definitely didn’t keep mine. 

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number nine. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures, Detransition, Baby and No One Is Talking About This.

This is also #3 of my 10 Books of Summer.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: No One Is Talking About This

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Patricia Lockwood’s uber-contemporary No One Is Talking About This has been described as a novel of two halves. In the first half, our unnamed protagonist is completely absorbed by what she calls ‘the portal’ and what we would call Twitter: ‘Why did the portal feel so private,’ she reflects, ‘when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?’ In the second half, she is consumed by something else: the short life of her baby niece, who is born with the rare condition Proteus Syndrome. Again, it’s technology – the babycam at the hospital – that allows her to fully enter her obsession: ‘There was a channel that played the baby in fuzzy black and white… and this is what she used to think the angels did, watch the channel that played her.’ I’ve read a number of reviews of this novel that suggest that Lockwood is intending to juxtapose the unreality of the protagonist’s existence of Twitter to the hard reality of her niece’s illness. However, while I think that is one of the things Lockwood is trying to do – and that the title of the novel indicates this – I didn’t find that No One Is Talking About This split that neatly into two halves.

I am very weary of fiction that tells us that the Internet is Bad and is Wrecking Our Minds, and I did feel that Lockwood fell into that trap, although she writes with greater subtlety than many others who have tackled the topic. When I think of popular Twitter memes, like feral hogs, Bernie at the inauguration, or the distracted boyfriend, they honestly make me feel more positive about humanity, not less. I like seeing people have fun, be clever, and be inventive, especially in the face of a lot of difficult things. The kind of ‘humorous’ Twitter that our protagonist is steeped in isn’t a kind that I recognise; it’s not funny and not cheering. I’m sure this was a deliberate choice on Lockwood’s part, but I don’t have much time for this one-sided view of technology. And while Lockwood sometimes hits on a clever turn of phrase, I found much of this novel grimly unreadable.

Where I think things get more interesting with No One Is Talking About This is how the sub-plot with the protagonist’s niece relates to the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I couldn’t help seeing thematic links between the baby’s condition and the protagonist’s existence as part of the collective consciousness of the portal. Because of the baby’s illness, her head grows out of proportion to the rest of her body, but her caregivers perceive her as having great abilities that she cannot exercise, defying her prognosis: ‘As the baby struggled to breathe, as it became clear that her airway was collapsing, as her head grew too heavy to even turn from side to side, it slowly dawned on them that she was experiencing an enlightenment, a golden age… Against all wisdom… she was learning, she could learn.’ There’s a sense that being part of the ‘Twitter hive mind’ has as much promise as the baby but is also weighing humans down in the same way as the baby struggles with her head, because we weren’t meant to be connected to so much as once; we too have an overgrowth of neural connections. If you buy into this reading, what the book is saying about the internet is much more thoughtful and equivocal. However, I guess I wasn’t convinced that I wasn’t just seeing things that weren’t there.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected ten titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times, Small Pleasures and Detransition, Baby.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2021: Wishlist and Predictions

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This year, I took a different approach to the Women’s Prize longlist, deciding that there’s no point me slogging through a lot of books I know I won’t like simply because they’ve been shortlisted for the Prize. Instead, I selected seven titles that I genuinely wanted to read. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a much better reading experience! I thought all the books I read were worthwhile and I only read one book that I don’t think deserves to advance to the shortlist. Here’s my ranking, with links to my reviews:

  1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  2. Consent by Annabel Lyon
  3. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  4. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  5. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  6. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  7. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Because I’ve read less than half of this year’s longlist, it makes it difficult for me to judge how it compares to last year’s longlist. But my best guess is that it’s better; my top six books this year are stronger than my top six books from last year.

My shortlist wishlist is, therefore, pretty straightforward; just delete Small Pleasures and there you have it 🙂 However, what do I think will actually advance to the shortlist? Here are my predictions, in order of certainty:

  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • No-One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My reasoning: TBH I really am not sure this year. I am not going to match last year’s triumph when I predicted 5 out of 6 shortlistees! But here’s what I was thinking:

  • It would be great to see a more even representation of writers of colour on the shortlist after the uneven longlist, and I imagine this is what the judges are thinking too. The Vanishing Half and Transcendent Kingdom should be certs, and Luster seems to have a lot to offer as the only ‘dysfunctional women’ novel the judges have picked that focuses on a black woman.
  • I’ve stopped believing that the judges are going to pick one of each ‘category’ of books they like, so I’ve thrown in Patricia Lockwood’s No-One Is Talking About This as another hyper-contemporary novel!
  • I think that Evaristo, in particular, wants to champion older writers and older characters. At 54, Claire Fuller is hardly old, but I guessed that Unsettled Ground might tick off these criteria. Clare Chambers also does, but I hope that the problematic elements of Small Pleasures will make it a more controversial choice. Kathleen MacMahon’s Nothing But Blue Sky also fits the bill, but my experience is that longlisted books that nobody has heard of before rarely make the Women’s Prize shortlist.
  • I wasn’t sure what to add for my sixth pick, but I think Piranesi has an outside chance. Speculative fiction usually doesn’t make it from longlist to shortlist, but the judges this year seem to have a penchant for experimental narratives, and Piranesi is very timely in its consideration of themes of loneliness and isolation.
  • As you can see from my ranking, I’d love to see Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby make the shortlist, but unfortunately I fear that the Prize will shy away from controversy and not shortlist this book. On the other hand, I imagine that accusations of transphobia against Amanda Craig will mean that The Golden Rule also won’t make it through.
  • I REALLY hope that the inclusion of Dawn French’s Because of You was because one judge really wanted it to be there. If so, it should fall at this stage.
  • I’d of course love to see Consent, but I think it’s too Marmite. I imagine this was also one that a single judge really pushed for.
  • I suspect Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar has already had too much exposure. I also wonder if the judges will see Ali Smith as too much of a ‘big name’ to shortlist Summer.
  • I don’t know why I haven’t listed Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. That may have a chance of making it through.

Will I be reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist? This very much depends on what it looks like! If they manage to shortlist six books I haven’t read, then no. If there’s only one or two books I haven’t read, then yes. Anything in between will be considered on its merits!

What are your wishes and predictions for the shortlist?

EDIT 29/4/21: And the actual shortlist is…

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Just to show off a bit about a completely pointless achievement, this means that I got 5 out of 6 right, same as last year, only this time I didn’t read most of the longlist! (And I had a bit of a feeling about How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, the only title I didn’t predict, as you can see from my comments above). I also posted my list of predictions before reading anybody else’s, so I think my mindmeld with the spirit of the Women’s Prize is complete.

I also think that this is a good shortlist. Unlike previous judging panels, these judges haven’t clustered too closely around any one theme or idea. I’m thrilled to see Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi, and although I would have liked to see Consent and Detransition, Baby, I’m not surprised that neither of them made it. I’m very relieved that Small Pleasures, Because of You and The Golden Rule are gone.

Will I read the whole shortlist? Probably, yes! I’ve only read three of the books so far, but the remaining three (Unsettled Ground, No-One Is Talking About This, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House) are all novels that I’m happy to try. Therefore, I’ll withhold any winner predictions or wishes until I’ve read all six books.

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Detransition, Baby

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Torrey Peters’s Detransition, Baby flips between present and past to tell the story of Reese, a trans woman; her ex Ames, who once lived as a trans woman called Amy but has now detransitioned; and Katrina, who is pregnant by Ames and shocked to discover his trans past. Ames proposes that they form a child-rearing triad, giving Katrina the support she needs with the baby and fulfilling Reese’s lifelong dream of being a mother. But will their different takes on parenting, relationships and what it means to be a woman torpedo this arrangement before it even gets going?

I had to read Detransition, Baby very slowly, not because it’s an inherently slow read (each chapter zips past) but because I felt like Peters was throwing so much at me that I needed time to digest it before moving on. Therefore, this review will take the form of a series of observations rather than the straightforward kind of review I usually write. It also occurs to me that this is the kind of book I’m going to rethink as time goes on, so these thoughts are also very provisional.

  • Peters is not interested in writing trans characters that are straightforwardly likeable or who deliberately challenge trans stereotypes, which is a good thing. When I’ve read trans women or girls written by writers who don’t identify as trans, I’ve found that these depictions tend to be so respectful as to be smothering. Peters seems to have looked at this kind of writing and gone, fuck this. Reese has very little time for what she frames as trans victimhood but at the same time recognises that she plays into it when it suits her. This tactic backfires when she tries to tell Katrina, who is Chinese-American, that Katrina, as a cis woman, can’t understand how it feels to want a baby and yet to be seen as unfit to parent. Katrina isn’t having any of this: ‘I don’t know, Reese. It doesn’t sound like you’re talking about all women, it just sounds like a certain kind of woman. Like women now, here in this country – white women… When my grandma arrived here from China, she wasn’t encouraged to have kids.’ Reese is also unable to understand how cis women might perceive pregnancy as a biological burden, because she so desperately wants to get pregnant herself.
  • The book portrays a trans culture that, in Reese’s words, is ‘morbid and highly skeptical’. Peters presents this as a coping mechanism for living in a transphobic world. In one particularly memorable chapter, Reese attends yet another funeral for a trans woman who took her own life, but although she’s angry and sad, she deals with her feelings by employing black humour: ‘What no-one wants to admit about funerals, because you’re supposed to be crushed by the melancholy of being a trans girl among the prematurely dead trans girls, is that funerals for dead trans girls number among the notable social events of a season.’
  • It has really interesting things to say about age and generation. One of Reese’s favourite narratives is that trans women don’t have any ‘elders’, and so she has to be a ‘mother’ to ‘baby trans’ women. She also points out that trans women have often gone through a second puberty, and so experience a kind of second adolescence. In short, Peters takes a lot of ideas from impenetrable academic books I’ve read about queer temporality and makes them accessible 🙂 
  •  The book isn’t afraid to tackle taboos such as autogynephilia. Ames/Amy wrestles with his/her sexuality, and whether he/she really is a woman or is simply turned on by dressing up and being treated like one. (I’m using both sets of pronouns here because Ames/Amy uses both during the course of the novel). However, Peters is too smart a writer not to pursue this question to its furthest extent; Ames/Amy reflects that cis women may also be turned on by performing gender, and so this isn’t something that’s unique to trans women. I didn’t agree with all the assumptions that Ames/Amy and Reese make about cis women, but that’s fine; Peters isn’t writing a manifesto here, she’s writing a novel about characters that relate to gender in a certain way and move within a particular kind of subculture.
  • Because of all this Detransition, Baby calls into question our pre-conceived ideas about who authors are writing for and what they need to explain. I often felt incredibly uncomfortable while I was reading this novel. Some of this was because the book messed with some of my ideas about womanhood and gender, which didn’t always fit with the ideas that Ames/Amy and Reese express (not in the sense that I thought the ideas they expressed were wrong, but in the sense that there wasn’t much space for me in this world, which again, is OK, there doesn’t have to be, I’m not trans). However, I realised that some of this was because I was worrying about the reaction of an imagined reader who is not me; an imagined straight cis reader who doesn’t know much about trans issues and is inclined to be unsympathetic. (These Goodreads reviewers call this reaction ‘not in front of the cis‘ or ‘not in front of the straights‘, which is perfect). Peters clearly decided that she was going to write without worrying about whether she was leaving the reader behind or presenting an unsympathetic image of trans women. And ultimately, I think this is great: how can you create good art, or talk honestly about identity, if you are constantly worrying about a person who doesn’t understand the basics of what you want to say?
  • Having said all this, Detransition, Baby does have problems on a craft level. This book is so clever and so interesting that I often skimmed past a lot of this, but there’s no denying that it feels rather hastily put together; the tenses often go wonky and some of the dialogue doesn’t work. Given the subject-matter, I think Peters can be forgiven for a lot of the ‘telling’ she does; if you’re writing about things that haven’t been spoken about before, how do you convey those things to the reader other than by telling? However, sometimes I felt that she was just dumping too much in, and failed to connect to her characters’ emotions. You could also see the joins in the unsteady jumps between past and present. Some of the sex was thematically necessary, but some felt gratuitous. So, this feels very much like a debut, but WHAT a debut; I’d definitely rather read a book like this than a book from someone who has totally mastered their craft, but has nothing to say. 

I’d also like to recommend this Goodreads review from a non-binary reviewer who I think really nails why this book works, especially the complexity of the three main characters.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read The Vanishing HalfTranscendent KingdomPiranesiConsent, Exciting Times and Small Pleasures.

Now I’ve read all seven books, I’ll be back soon with my overall ranking and shortlist predictions!

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Small Pleasures

There’s a lot to love in Clare Chambers’ absorbing Small Pleasures, set in late 1950s London – and a little that made me uncomfortable. Jean, the central character, is a journalist for the local paper and sole carer for her elderly mother. She apparently slots into a kind of literary type, but as I’ve never read any of the writers that Chambers has been compared to, like Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner, I found this to be quite a refreshing look at the unpaid and unappreciated care work done by ‘spinster’ women. Jean’s steady job is to write the ‘women’s sections’ of the paper, like ‘Pam’s Piece’ and domestic tips, but when she reads a letter from a woman who claims to have given birth ‘without the involvement of any man’, she is keen to pursue the story. This brings her into contact with Gretchen, now married to Howard, whose ‘miraculous’ daughter Margaret is now ten. Jean becomes increasingly drawn into this family, who offer her respite from her loneliness, but becoming too closely involved with their lives may turn out to have been a mistake.

As Small Pleasures unfolds, it becomes increasingly drawn away from the ‘virgin birth’ hook and more focused on the individual subjectivities of Jean, Howard and Gretchen. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although I felt that the conclusion to the virgin birth thread was a bit deus ex machina, as if Chambers wanted to wrap it up quickly before getting onto the actual ending of the novel. The joy of this book lies partly in its quietness, its willingness to give time to characters that are often overlooked in fiction, with Jean musing extensively on her middle-aged dowdiness and how people assume that she no longer feels anything much. There’s a sensible kindness about interpersonal relationships throughout much of this novel, with neighbours offering help as well as judgment, and colleagues sympathy as well as pity. Even Jean’s querulous mother is allowed to have some redeeming qualities. However, this makes the moments when Chambers seems to run short on empathy even more telling. [Spoilers from now on, scroll to the bottom of the post to skip]

About halfway through Small Pleasures, we find out that Gretchen was in love with another woman, Martha, during the period she spent at a sanatorium as a teenager, when she also conceived Margaret. Martha was devastated because she believed Gretchen willingly slept with a man, and cut off contact with her. Gretchen explains that she was motivated to prove that Margaret was an immaculate conception so that Martha would trust her again. Having re-established contact with Martha via Jean, Gretchen leaves Howard. Howard tells Jean that he and Gretchen stopped having sex long ago, and he and Jean embark upon an affair. This, for me, was where Small Pleasures began to feel a little uncomfortable. The text focuses on Howard’s pain, emphasising that he wasn’t able to have ‘a full marriage’ with Gretchen and how important it is for him to have found true sexual love with Jean. We’re also invited to reflect on how important this is for Jean after years of self-denial. However, perhaps inadvertently, this minimises Gretchen’s (and Martha’s) suffering; it may be unpleasant to have to live a life of involuntary celibacy, but it’s another thing altogether to have the very fact that you experience desire demonised and suppressed.

I’ve noticed that when somebody writes in to a forum or problem page to say that their spouse has come out as gay or lesbian and has left them, this is often framed as deliberate deceit. While there may be some sympathy for the spouse, it’s always assumed that they ‘always knew’ they were homosexual and so always knew that they could never be a ‘proper’ husband or wife. Chambers very much plays into this kind of narrative, suggesting that Gretchen should have been ‘honest’ with Howard. However, being a lesbian in 1950s Britain was not just an identity that couldn’t be publicly claimed; it was an identity that barely existed. As Diana Chapman said, remembering her adolescence in the early 1950s, ‘Yes, I thought I was a lesbian. But… every book on psychology I ever read… told me that it was immature and I should… reconcile myself to my femininity and find myself a good man and have children.’ If your sexual desires have been validated all of your life, it might be hard to understand how queer people can both ‘know and not know’ what they really want, but this is still real for queer people – and perhaps especially queer women – today, let alone almost seventy years ago. The very fact that Gretchen waited so long to prove her story and seek out Martha suggested to me that, even if she’d once admitted her feelings for Martha to herself, she’d tried to bury them again after marrying Howard. I understand that we get all of this through Jean, who is not primed to be sympathetic to Gretchen; but I felt that Chambers could have done a lot more work, if she had been so inclined, to indicate that our sympathies should be more complicated.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number six. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half, Transcendent KingdomPiranesi, Consent and Exciting Times.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Consent and Exciting Times

(Perhaps someone should actually write a novel called Consent and Exciting Times, it sounds fun).

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Annabel Lyon’s latest novel, Consent, is almost impossible to summarise swiftly (which may explain why the British publisher has pretty much given up and written an inaccurate summary of the entire plot on the back cover, but publishers, this really isn’t a good idea – apart from anything else, it makes Consent sound like a thriller, which it is not). In short, it’s about two pairs of sisters. Sara’s sister Mattie is intellectually disabled, and Sara starts caring for her after the death of their mother. Saskia’s sister Jenny has been out of control since she was a teenager, and now she’s in a coma following a car accident. Lyon packs so much into this relatively slim novel that there are probably multiple ways of summarising what it’s really ‘about’, but I found myself particularly picking up on the theme of bodily autonomy – what we are allowed to do with our bodies, and how that’s related to both our intellectual capacity and our capacity to live independently from other people. We valorise independence, but we’re all dependent. We want freedom, but we often throw away the things that would allow us to seek it. Some of us, Lyon seems to be saying, are allowed to wreck our own lives; some of us are not.

I thought this novel was fantastic, but I’m struggling to say why. I imagine many readers will find it incredibly unsatisfying. Lyon’s writing is elliptical, deliberately looping round pieces of key information so we have to be constantly engaged to work things out for ourselves. Such intensity might have been too much in a longer novel, but in this short book it’s perfect, like one of the strong espressos Sara drinks or the expensive scents she wears. It also strays close to the ironic commentary of some ‘millennial novels’ I’ve read without giving into the temptation to say things that are too easy. (Sara, born in the 70s, is also too old to be a millennial, and I liked the juxtaposition between her inner monologue and that of the younger Saskia’s). I’d never heard of Lyon before she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize, but now I want to check out her entire backlist. Brilliant choice, judges.

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It’s a rare novel that draws praise from both Marian Keyes and Hilary Mantel, but both are quoted on the cover of my copy of Naoise Dolan’s debut, Exciting Times. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been steering clear of this for some time because I felt it would be yet another ‘dysfunctional women being dysfunctional novel’, but after some persuasion, mostly by Elle, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did; this is much weirder and more interesting than your typical novel about a young woman messing her life up. Ava is working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, partly because she doesn’t know what to do next with her life and partly to avoid living at home in Dublin. She finds herself hate-dating banker Julian, and stays in his flat when he leaves Hong Kong for months on business. But then she meets Edith, and finds herself building a relationship that’s much sweeter and more genuine – although, if that’s really the case, why is she still so drawn to Julian?

Ava’s narration makes this novel. She’s interested in language in a way that feels much more illuminating than the wordplay that writers like Ali Smith sometimes indulge in, musing on the differences between Irish English and the ‘correct’ form of English that she’s instructed to teach to her students, as well as the differences between English and the languages she encounters in Hong Kong. Her voice is also pitched very carefully between being relatable and alienating, which perhaps explains why both Keyes and Mantel enjoyed this. Bits of Exciting Times did take me right back to my early twenties, when being the least keen in a relationship was so important, and you get interested in people who seem to be the antithesis of everything you say you believe in, because they come from a world you’ve never encountered before. However, Ava isn’t an everywoman; she’s both terrible and brilliant at social interaction, and makes some very bizarre judgments about others. She comes off at first like the kind of astute narrator that we can laugh along with, but we gradually realise how off-kilter her ideas are. All this is really cleverly handled, and although I didn’t quite fall for Exciting Times, I definitely admired it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers four and five. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half ,Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Piranesi

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Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s second novel, has been called ‘a puzzleand a ‘mystery’ with ‘revelations‘ that unfold throughout the narrative. I think this sets up expectations for the book that mar the reading experience (encouraging the reader to rush to discover secrets), so I’m going to say straight off, I didn’t find any unexpected twists or shocks in Piranesi. Indeed, I felt like I knew what was going on almost from the start, although it gradually took firmer shape. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that we were ever really meant to know what was going on, for certain; Piranesi has something of the resonant, deliberately frustrating quality of Nina Allan’s novels, perhaps especially The Silver Wind. It didn’t enchant me quite as much as I expected, but the world that Clarke creates within Piranesi’s House is so vivid and troubling that it will take me a long time to forget it.

Our narrator tells us about the limited world within which he lives, a labyrinth of marble halls that ascend into the clouds and are intermittently washed by tides, and which are filled with statues. Only fifteen people, he believes, have ever existed, and only two of those are still alive; himself, and a man he calls ‘the Other’, who visits him occasionally, only to disappear again ‘to far distant halls’. In the journal entries that make up the first couple of sections of this book, part of the fascination of the narrator’s character is figuring out how things might be if you thought such a place was the entire world. He is greatly reverent of the dead, for example, able to pay each of the collections of bones he discovers individual attention, because there are so few people to remember. As the plot gathers pace and the narrator starts to unpick things he believed were true, this aspect of the novel recedes, but there’s a haunting oddness about Piranesi that remains even when we return to a more mundane world at the end. The epigraph from The Magician’s Nephew, the only Narnia book I’ve ever enjoyed, is totally apt. 

Piranesi is an odd book to find on the Women’s Prize longlist. Even when the Prize has branched out to embrace more speculative fiction, it’s tended to stay closer to realism. Nevertheless, I completely welcome its presence here, and I hope this heralds more science fiction, horror and fantasy on future longlists, as well as all those genres that fall in between.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected seven titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read The Vanishing Half and Transcendent Kingdom.

The Women’s Prize Longlist, 2021

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2021 has been announced! Here are some other bloggers’ reactions: Rachel, Claire, Emily.

First thoughts: I find this list disproportionately concentrated towards white writers. There are only five writers of colour shortlisted, when there were seven last year. This is made worse by a bunching towards a kind of middle-class white British novel which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but feels a bit much when there are so many on the list (Unsettled Ground, Small Pleasures, The Golden Rule). I note that there were a similar run of novels this year either set in Uganda and/or written by Ugandan women, none of which appear on the list (Kololo Hill, We Are All Birds of Uganda, The First Woman).

On a purely personal note, while I think it’s still better than last year’s longlist, I find this list disappointing because it contains a number of writers who I haven’t got on with in the past (Amanda Craig, Claire Fuller) or who I used to get on with but no longer do (Ali Smith), or books that I had already decided not to read (Burnt Sugar, Luster). I don’t think all of these books and writers are objectively bad, but I would have loved to see more books on the list that were new to me or that I was keen to read. I have only read two books from the longlist already, a new low for me, but one that perhaps indicates that the judges’ interests and mine are tending in opposite directions.

However, I am absolutely thrilled that the two titles I most wanted to see on this list, Piranesi and Transcendent Kingdom, are both here, and the Prize has also highlighted a few books that were vaguely on my radar but that I’m now even more excited to read (Exciting Times, Consent, Detransition, Baby).

I am not planning to read the whole longlist this year, or even to try and read as many titles from the longlist as I sometimes do. The Jhalak Prize has also just announced an interesting longlist, and I’d like to get some of those in rather than solely reading Women’s Prize titles. However, here are my thoughts and plans:

The Ones I’ve Read

  • Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom. We all know how I feel about this incredibly clever and incredibly emotional novel about a Ghanaian neuroscientist struggling with the legacy of her brother’s drug addiction and her family’s Pentecostal faith. I would have been furious if this hadn’t been longlisted, and it’s a sure candidate for the shortlist.
  • Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half. This hit novel about two African-American twin sisters, one of whom chooses to leave her family and pass as white, deserves to be on the longlist and possibly even the shortlist, but it didn’t blow me away and I do feel it’s been overhyped. I think this would be a very safe, boring choice as winner, so I hope the Prize don’t go that route.

The Ones I Already Wanted To Read

  • Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. I have this tale of a magical labyrinth ready to go on my Kindle, so it will probably be one of the next books I pick up. I’m glad to see the Prize shortlisting something more speculative, and while I didn’t completely adore Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (wonderful worldbuilding, limited characterisation) I’m so intrigued by Clarke’s second novel, which sounds completely different.
  • Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times. I’ve been hesitating over this novel, which follows a young Irish woman in Hong Kong, for some time, as I was worried it would be another ‘millennial disaster novel’, and I am thoroughly sick of those. However, good reviews by bloggers I trust have won me over, and Dolan has just written an incredibly insightful piece about being autistic in the Guardian, which makes me more interested in her as a writer.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

  • Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. When this one was announced, my initial reaction was ‘Oh no!’. I then tried to work out why I felt this way, as I haven’t read anything by Chambers. I then realised, to my shame, that I have been subconsciously avoiding Chambers’ work because she has the same time as a Cambridge philosopher I really don’t like. So apologies to this Clare Chambers, who is not a faux-feminist liberal philosopher, and has actually written a book that sounds quite interesting! Small Pleasures, set in 1957, is about a young woman who claims to have experienced a virgin birth, and the journalist investigating her claims.
  • Annabel Lyon, Consent. I hadn’t heard of this before, but I think it sounds great! It traces the dynamics between two sets of sisters, and promises themes of duty, responsibility, and consent.
  • Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby. Peters is the first trans woman to be longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I’d vaguely heard of this novel before, but this has put it firmly on my radar. It focuses on a trans woman, Reese, her detransitioned partner, Ames, and his boss, Katrina. I’m particularly interested by a novel that considers the experience of trans and detransitioned people alongside each other.

The Ones I Still Don’t Want To Read

  • Avni Doshi, Burnt Sugar. I already gave this a miss when it was on the Booker shortlist (and to be honest, that list was so awful that the very fact of it being shortlisted put me off it further). It examines the difficult, complicated relationship between a mother and her daughter, and I’m not really keen to read more about motherhood at the moment, plus it had a lot of lukewarm reviews when it first came out.
  • Dawn French, Because of You. OK, so I always have one ‘what were the judges thinking?’ moment with the Women’s Prize, and this was it for 2021. I can see they’ve already been talking about how prizes aren’t only for literary fiction, to which I say: what are prizes for, then? As I have written previously, I do not think that literary fiction is superior to commercial fiction, or that reading it makes you a better person. I also don’t think that literary and genre fiction are neatly separated (I have often said the Prize should longlist more genre fiction that’s on the literary end, like Tana French’s crime novels, or Becky Chambers’s SF). However, I do think there is a REASON we have the category of literary fiction, because it requires a different quality of attention, and signals to the reader what to expect from a book. Commercial writers sell better and have a bigger audience than literary writers (which is great, reaching more people is incredibly important) and so prizes are one way that literary writers can try and find some kind of audience for their work. I haven’t read French’s novel, so I can’t really judge it, but given her existing fame, I can’t help but feel that this slot could have been better used for a writer who really needs it.
  • Raven Leilani, Luster. I know this ‘millennial disaster woman’ book diverges from the others by being about a black woman rather than the white default, which is great, but I still don’t want to read any more dysfunctional women being dysfunctional books.
  • Claire Fuller, Unsettled Ground. I liked Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days but really did not like Bitter Orange, which I found hackneyed and miserable. The blurb for this one – middle-aged twins living in rural isolation – doesn’t appeal to me at all, so I’ll be giving it a miss. Fuller is a great prose writer, though.
  • Cherie Jones, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. I feel bad about skipping this one, because it’s the kind of book I’d definitely have read in previous years of the Prize. But the blurb sounds gritty and violent, tracing the hard lives of married women in Barbados, and I’m not especially drawn to it.
  • Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky. I hadn’t heard of this at all before it was longlisted, and I do often like to try these kind of picks by the Prize, as they’re often very interesting. However, this quiet story of a man reflecting on his marriage after his wife’s death just doesn’t attract me enough right now.
  • Patricia Lockwood, No-One Is Talking About This. I’m sure this is actually very good, but much like millennial disaster women, I’m not up for books about social media at the moment.
  • Ali Smith, Summer. I love much of Ali Smith’s earlier work – Hotel World, Girl Meets Boy, There But For The, even her more recent How To Be Both – but she is a bit hit and miss for me, and her seasonal quartet is definitely a miss, so I won’t be reading this.
  • Amanda CraigThe Golden Rule. So, I quite liked Craig’s Hearts and Minds when I read it back in my early twenties (I suspect I wouldn’t be so keen now), and decided to try her earlier novel Love in Idleness. It was absolutely terrible – full of middle-class self-absorption and prejudice. Her later work sounds like more of the same.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

For me, the most notable omissions are Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Starsboth superb novels that deserved a slot. (I know Donoghue got a lot of hype for Room, but I feel like she hasn’t had the attention she deserves since – her brilliant novel Akin was also ignored by prize juries).

I would also have loved to see Meng Jin’s Little GodsTara June Winch’s The Yield, and/or one of the Ugandan novels I mentioned above.

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On The Longlist

There are actually quite a few this year that I’m deeply relieved are not here! Megha Majumdar’s A Burning was widely predicted, but it really isn’t very good. I also thought Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling was incredibly flat. And even though I put it on my wishlist, I’ve since read Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew and was disappointed – the morality was too black and white for me – so I’m glad it isn’t here either.

What are your thoughts on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist?