My Top Ten Books of 2022

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2021 post here, my 2020 post here, my 2019 post here, my 2018 post here, my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

A note: If 2021 was a weak reading year, 2022 was an exceptionally strong one! Plenty of my commended books could also have appeared on this list.

In no particular order…

81Ry5hSi3tL

1. The Dispossessed: Ursula Le Guin. This classic SF novel has rightly swept many readers across the decades off their feet; it’s such an intelligent, detailed and honest exploration of what an anarchist society might look like, and how that would change the kind of people we are. I wrote briefly about it here.

9781529017236.jpg

2. Our Wives Under The Sea: Julia Armfield. MY OBSESSION. After Miri’s biologist wife Leah returns from a mysterious deep-sea mission, she realises that the Leah who left is not the person who’s come back. A book about grief, but also a very fine horror novel. I reviewed it here.

A1IQQw8njnL

3. Finding The Mother Tree: Suzanne Simard. Many writers want to combine memoir and nature-writing and very few succeed. Simard does it perfectly, and she’s also the protagonist of a fascinating, revolutionary scientific investigation that would have been enough for a book on its own, as she explores how trees of different species share resources and information via an underground fungal network. I wrote briefly about it here.

9781786078582

4. The First Woman: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Teenage Kirabo explores the secrets of her own family against a backdrop of Ugandan folktales during Idi Amin’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Makumbi’s writing is incredible: she lets her story speak for itself in a local vernacular that is so clever, vivid and alive. I wrote briefly about it here.

9780571331499

5. The Anthill: Julianne Pachico. Lina spent her early childhood in Medellín but left for England when she was eight; now she’s returned to the city as an uncomfortable outsider. This book is both a merciless, brilliantly observed critique of foreign visitors to Columbia and a haunting horror story that uses ghostly tropes to explore a character and a country’s traumatic past. In the end, we can never really come home. I wrote briefly about it here.

A1eltasW2CL

6. Spirits Abroad: Zen Cho. I didn’t love every story in this collection but about half of it was so wonderful that I felt it belonged on this list anyway. Cho expertly combines dry wit, Malaysian folklore, a hint of horror, and her own superb imagination. Best stories: ‘The Terra-Cotta Bride’ and ‘The House of Aunts’. I reviewed it here.

9780593321201

7. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: Gabrielle Zevin. Of course I loved this gorgeous tale of work, friendship, making art, storytelling and play. Sam and Sadie design video games together, but you don’t need to like video games to like this novel, which is really about the challenges of creating. I reviewed it here.

31qE3v1HhzL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

8. To Paradise: Hanya Yanagihara. CONTROVERSIAL. This wasn’t an instant smash hit for me but I haven’t stopped thinking about it all year, especially the third section of the novel, ‘Zone Eight’. The questions Yanagihara asks about how societies that seem dystopic to us may actually have benefits for those who suffer in our society are just not questions I’ve seen being explored anywhere else. I reviewed it here.

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

9. The Sentence: Louise Erdrich. Should have won the Women’s Prize! This isn’t a perfect novel but I felt that Erdrich brought a whole world to life through the warm, humorous voice of her Objiwe narrator, Tookie. I reviewed it here.

418Y8P7JJ7L

10. Bloodchild and Other Stories: Octavia E. Butler. Five incredible miniature pieces of science fiction (plus a couple things that didn’t work for me, but whatever). Best stories: ‘Amnesty’ and ‘Bloodchild’. I wrote about it briefly here.

Reading Stats

I read 190 books in 2022. This is an all-time record, but I’m not sure why I read more this year than in previous years! In 2023, I’ll again set a target of 150, as I don’t like having a target that’s too ambitious. Of the 190 books I read, 25 were re-reads, a significant improvement over the 11 books I re-read in 2021.

I read 162 books by women (including 1 trans woman) and 28 books by men (including 2 trans men). I think this is the fewest number of books by men I’ve ever read in one year, totalling just 15% of my total reading. I wanted to read more books by men of colour and trans men this year, and I did up my numbers in that respect. Also notable: this is the only time that my top ten books of the year have all been written by women.

I read 72 books by writers of colour and 118 books by white writers. This means I have FINALLY achieved (and smashed) my target of reading 33% of books by writers of colour, getting it up to 38%. I have to say, I’ve really noticed how much more diverse my reading has felt this year, and I’m glad that six of my top ten books of the year were by women of colour. Once again, I will aim to read 33% books by writers of colour in 2022.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books: 

Screenshot 2022-12-29 at 17.55.22

Screenshot 2022-12-29 at 17.55.29

Advertisement

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022: The End

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 will be announced TOMORROW! This is a short summary post. My round-up of the twelve titles I’ve read from the longlist can be found here.

The book I want to win

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

The book I think will win

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

The book I least want to win

810lnQaHqmL

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

  1. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  2. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  3. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
  4. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  5. The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini
  6. The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Who do you think will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022? And who do you want to win?

EDIT: And the winner is…

71uigFoq0pS

I almost called it! I hoped The Sentence would win but thought that The Book of Form and Emptiness also ticked a lot of the same boxes for the judges, and so it has proven. I’m unsurprised but pleased that the judges gave the prize to a woman of colour.

Although I didn’t get on with The Book of Form and Emptiness, I’m not too disappointed with this result. Ozeki is a wonderful writer whose work deserves to be recognised, and there were certainly wonderful sections even within what I consider to be her worst book.

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022: Final Thoughts

Screenshot-2022-03-08-at-09.12.42

I’ve now finished reading the twelve titles from the Women’s Prize longlist that I wanted to read, including all six titles on the shortlist if you include the one I was unable to finish, so I’m going to post my round-up. The actual winner will be announced on June 15th.

Overall, I’m disappointed with this year’s shortlist, and I think a stronger one could have been assembled from this year’s interesting if uneven longlist (my favourite four books from the longlist were so strong and diverse). There are two titles on the shortlist I’d be totally baffled to see win, which was not the case last year.

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

  1. *The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. ‘the reason it works is Tookie’s voice… I was captivated by her warmth and humour… through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us’
  2. *Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. ‘an unexpected hit… Mason pulls off something quite special’
  3. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. ‘too long… [but with] some incredibly memorable set-pieces… I loved its originality and daring’
  4. Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey. ‘convincing and moving… competent… but it doesn’t offer anything especially new’
  5. Careless by Kirsty Cape. ‘Bess is a compelling protagonist… there are a few duff notes… [but] the handling of [Bess’s trauma] is exceptional’
  6. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton. ‘tends to rely on stereotype… [with] flashes of greater insight’
  7. *The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. ‘this story…could have made a good novel half the length of this one’
  8. *Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. ‘a massive potboiler… [but] the last hundred pages are really stunning’
  9. Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. ‘flashes of brilliant writing… [but] mannered and pretentious’
  10. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. ‘despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, a weirdly compelling read’
  11. *The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini. ‘pretty much nothing else about this [other than the Creole] worked for me’
  12. *The Island of Missing Trees (DNF) by Elif Shafak. ‘the combination of horrifically clunky writing, melodrama and sentimentality has defeated me’

Looking back at my original post on the shortlist, three of the four titles I decided to read later on in the process were my three least favourites, and I correctly predicted that Sorrow and Bliss would make the shortlist and hence I would have read it anyway. The lesson: stick to my guns in 2023 and only read the longlisted titles that genuinely interest me.

Who do I want to win? And who do I think will win? OK, having the same answer for these two questions has never worked out well for me in the past, but I do think it’s a great book that would tick a lot of the judges’ boxes:

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

I was convinced that the Prize would be awarded to a woman of colour in 2021, after Black Lives Matter gained renewed attention and amid much discussion of the innate whiteness of the publishing industry; this didn’t happen, as Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi surprisingly took the Prize. This year, I think we’re overdue. The Sentence deals directly with Black Lives Matter (refreshingly, from a Native American viewpoint), alongside the prison system, Indigenous religion and Covid-19, but it’s not because it ticks off these issues that I think it’s a worthy and likely winner. It’s a great book that has much to say about the power of literary communities – one of the Prize’s favoured themes this year – without ever tipping into sentimentality. It brings together a band of misfits who support and uplift each other, and it’s joyful but not naive. And while Louise Erdrich may be a big-name author in the US, she is not as well known in the UK, and her books deserve to reach an international audience. Finally, a Native American woman has never won the Women’s Prize. For this mix of reasons, The Sentence is definitely my pick.

However, if I was asked to predict which other title is most likely to win, I’d go for:

71uigFoq0pS

Although I think it is by far the weaker novel, Ruth Ozeki’s The Book of Form and Emptiness has a lot of the same things going for it as The Sentence. (And an East Asian woman has never won the Women’s Prize either!). I didn’t rate The Book of Form and Emptiness, but as an Ozeki fan, I wouldn’t be outraged by this outcome.

Who do you want to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022? And who do you think will win?

Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist, 2022: Wishlist and Predictions

Screenshot-2022-03-08-at-09.12.42

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 shortlist will be announced tomorrow! This year, I followed the same strategy as last year and selected six titles from the Women’s Prize longlist that I actually wanted to read, plus the two I’d already read when the list was announced. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the list, so I then added three more titlesbringing the total number to eleven. This last-minute move was, I think, a mistake. Two of the three titles I added were my two least favourite of the eleven, and while the third, Sorrow and Bliss, was certainly worth reading, let’s face it – it’ll probably get shortlisted and then I would have read it anyway.

Here’s my ranking, with links to my reviews:

  1. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  2. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
  3. Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
  4. Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey
  5. Careless by Kirsty Cape
  6. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
  7. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
  8. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
  9. Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé
  10. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
  11. The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini

This means that my ideal shortlist is:

This is a strange ideal shortlist to have, as I only really want four of the titles on it – The Sentence, Sorrow and Bliss, Build Your House Around My Body and Remote Sympathy – to actually get shortlisted. Nevertheless, I still feel I’ve had a better experience with the longlist than I did last year.

But what do I think will actually get shortlisted? I have a surprisingly good track record when it comes to Women’s Prize shortlist predictions: 5/6 in 2018, 3/6 in 2019, 5/6 in 2020, and 5/6 in 2021. I very much doubt I will do as well this year, as the judges seem to have a penchant for left-field choices. But I would guess:

My reasoning:

  • There are a couple of left-field picks on the list that are ranked low among readers and I suspect are a single judge’s choice, so they are unlikely to advance to the shortlist. I’d say Careless, Flamingo and The Exhibitionist fall into this category.
  • There are also a number of relatively obscure books from independent publishers on the list: I think only one of these will advance to the shortlist, so that rules out Creatures of Passage and Salt Lick. Creatures of Passage also deals with child abuse and magical realism, two themes that are covered on the shortlist I’ve predicted.
  • Following on from that, because I think the judges will limit the number of books that deal with child abuse or speculative/magical realist books on the list, I’d also rule out The Paper Palace,  Build Your House and The Book of Form and Emptiness, although I think the latter is the most likely of all the books I’ve ruled out to actually make it to the list. I have only omitted it because its take on books and reading is very similar to The Sentence.
  • Finally, I think Great Circle will miss out because it already made the Booker shortlist and these judges seem to want to do things their own way; and Opal & Nev because it isn’t literary enough.

What are your wishes and predictions for the shortlist?

EDIT 27/4/22: And the actual shortlist is…

SHORTLIST-2022--scaled

I didn’t quite meet my previous records, but I’m pleased to have correctly predicted 4/6 of the shortlist (and to have suggested that Ozeki was likely to make it despite not being one of my official predictions!)

I’m not hugely excited about this shortlist but neither am I hugely disappointed. The only book I’d really like to have seen on the shortlist that isn’t there is Build Your House Around My Body; on the other hand, the only book that I really think doesn’t deserve its place on the list, of the five I’ve read, is The Bread The Devil Knead. I’m pleased to see my top two picks, The Sentence and Sorrow and Bliss, and while I had significant problems with both Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness, both books have their own strengths as well.

Will I read the whole shortlist? The only book I haven’t read is Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, so yes! I’m SO relieved not to have to tackle Flamingo, Salt Lick, The Exhibitionist or This One Sky Day.

What are your thoughts on the shortlist?

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Creatures of Passage

Nephthys Kinwell drives a sky-blue 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, haunted by the occasional thump of the ghost of a white girl in the trunk. She ferries lost souls across the Anacostia neighbourhood of Washington DC in 1977, helped by the fact that her car never breaks down or needs refuelling. Nephthys is haunted by the violent death of her twin brother Osiris; they were born conjoined at the finger (best to treat this as fantasy: conjoined twins cannot be different sexes, as they are always genetically identical, and this type of conjoining also seems unlikely) and she does not feel complete without him. Her niece Amber has the power to predict deaths, and when she has a dream about her son, Dash, Nephthys fears for his fate. Meanwhile, child abuser Mercy, the caretaker at the local school, stalks this troubled kingdom.

Creatures of Passage, Morowa Yejidé’s second novel, draws heavily on Ancient Egyptian mythology. I was familiar with the story of Isis and Osiris but hadn’t realised that Nephthys was their sister, and that she helped Isis to bring Osiris back from the dead after his murder and dismemberment. In some accounts she is also the mother of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death who oversaw the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ in the Egyptian journey to the underworld. Egyptian Books of the Dead map routes to the underworld that involve fearful obstacles such as a lake of fire, giving the deceased a series of spells to recite so they can pass safely. A ferryman also carries the souls of the dead into the underworld. Yejidé uses this imagery throughout the novel, including the use of ancient language such as ‘kingdoms’ and ‘kings’ to describe the United States. Certain incidents bring this mythological resonance together hauntingly and beautifully: most notably, the murder of Osiris.

Unfortunately, for much of this novel, the voice that Yejidé cultivates simply did not work for me, on both a structural level and line-by-line. Creatures of Passage is deliberately repetitive and circular, as indicated by the childhood song that is repeated by both Nephthys and Osiris: ‘Indigo swirlin’ round de vat/No beginnin’ and no end…’ Both siblings also repeat certain phrases, such as ‘the unbearable inertia of one’ and ‘the interstellar cold of his solitude’, a tic that drove me increasingly mad as the novel went on. This was perhaps especially irritating because these phrases, like much of the rest of the text, felt mannered and pretentious. Yejidé chooses complex language even when things could be said much more simply. Describing the death of a pregnant woman: ‘As the woman moved from one plane of existence to another, the preborn lay quiet in her amniotic water, listening to the sound of her progenitor’s heartbeat slowing to a stop.’ One line like this might work, but the accumulation of them is very wearing, even if it’s in keeping with the mood of the novel. There are flashes of brilliant writing – ‘the cherry-blossom flecked currents of the Tidal Basin; the shallow majesty of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool; the slushy inflow of the McMillan Reservoir; the black tranquility of the Georgetown canal; the rolling deep of the Potomac River’ – but even these get diluted by being repeated.

I genuinely admire what Yejidé was trying to do with this novel, but it did not work well for me, especially because all this is anchored by a rather thin plot that centres on child abuse, a prominent theme in the Women’s Prize longlist this year but one which is difficult to handle in fiction. Probably my biggest disappointment from the list, and I doubt it will be shortlisted.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eleven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, CarelessThe Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev , Build Your House Around My Body, The Bread The Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Bread the Devil Knead and Sorrow and Bliss

51B19Sg82NL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

The Bread the Devil Knead, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s debut adult novel, is narrated by Alethea, a Trinidadian woman in her late thirties who lives with a violent partner, Leo. She’s repeating patterns she learnt in childhood from a neglectful mother and abusive uncle, and while she dreams of managing her own clothing boutique, this seems unlikely to ever happen while she’s under Leo’s control. The Trinidadian Creole that Alethea narrates in is the best aspect of this novel; while I didn’t understand all the words and phrases used, this wasn’t a problem, and I was introduced to a lot of brilliantly vivid vernacular: ‘dayclean’; ‘when me and Tamika eye make four’; ‘she skin up she face’. Unfortunately, pretty much nothing else about this worked for me. It reads like simplistic women’s fiction. There’s almost no characterisation except for Alethea herself, and even she is thinly drawn; from other reviews, I’d expected her voice to be funnier and more memorable. The Bread The Devil Knead is reminiscent of one of last year’s Women’s Prize shortlistees, Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, but lacks its fluid writing and rich, complex cast. It also reminded me of another 2022 longlistee I did not like, Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace: both books deal with familial child abuse and how abusive relationships are transmitted from generation to generation (and, bizarrely, both feature a scene where the protagonist-as-little-girl wets herself because her mother is too keen to impress to take her to the toilet). Like The Paper Palace, The Bread the Devil Knead has very little new to say, which makes its recital of pain feel gratuitous, and it’s even more badly written. My least favourite title on the Women’s Prize longlist so far.

9781474622974

I’ve been putting off reading Sorrow and Bliss, Meg Mason’s second novel, because it didn’t sound like my thing: I was worried it would be another Disaster Woman novel in the vein of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times; plus, much as I think books that focus on personal struggles with mental illness are important and necessary, I rarely enjoy reading them. So this was an unexpected hit, even though I still don’t think I loved it quite as much as other readers did. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Sorrow and Bliss, but I was expecting the protagonist Martha’s voice to get wearing, as funny, ironic narrative voices often do. I adored Martha’s relationship with sister Ingrid but the other characters felt sketchier; Martha’s relationship with her mother, in particular, felt like it came from a less acerbic Gwendoline Riley novella. In the final third, however, Mason pulls off something quite special as Martha confronts her true diagnosis and with it a reckoning of how she has both wronged others and been wronged. We see that if we felt like we didn’t quite get the rest of the cast before, that’s because Martha has been holding them at arms-length. While Mason heartbreakingly conveys the moment when Martha realises she’s been denying herself what she really wants, I was also disappointed that this revelation turned her character back towards convention. However, this undoubtedly works well for this particular novel, as we share in Martha’s devastation and self-deception. As Martha grows in self-knowledge, so does this book; Mason’s writing starts off clever but a little glib, and becomes much more brilliant as it goes on. I particularly loved this exchange between Ingrid and Martha near the end of the novel:

“I can’t just think of something else and decide to want that instead.”

Ingrid said yes you can. “Even the women who get those things lose them again. Husbands die and children grow up and marry someone you hate… Everything goes away eventually, and women are always the last ones standing so we just make up something else to want.”

I hope and expect to see this novel on the Women’s Prize shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers nine and ten. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote SympathyThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev and Build Your House Around My Body.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Build Your House Around My Body

9780861542147_2

In 2011, Winnie, a young Vietnamese-American woman, is eking out her days as an English teacher in Saigon, scarcely bothering to teach her students anything more than the slang phrases she scribbles on the board (‘Humblebrag, catfishing, bikini body, friends with benefits’). Long Phan, now Winnie’s boyfriend, is haunted by Binh, a girl he met when they were children – but not as haunted as his brother Tan. Seven months earlier, Fortune Teller and his two assistants are called to investigate a ghostly dripping sound in a house in Ia Kare, isolated in the rural highlands of Vietnam. In 1949, two Frenchmen lease twenty acres of bushland in the same area and plant rubber trees, hoping it’s the route to a quick fortune. And in 1986, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese man gets lost in that forest trying to escape the horrors of her present.

Build Your House Around My Body flips between these different characters in different times, not stopping to explain to the reader how they are connected, so it’s only really in the last quarter of the novel that it starts to come together. However, I found one of the attractions of this narrative was its puzzle-box nature; when the links finally click, it’s both chilling and satisfying. This is definitely very reminiscent of David Mitchell, especially his The Bone Clocks and Slade House (although I liked it a lot more than I liked Slade House), with a smattering of other horror tropes; Kupersmith has fun playing with imagery from The Ring/Ringu, for example. And that’s another aspect of Build Your House that you might not anticipate from the blurb; there’s a dry wit that runs through it; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. (‘Though the Fortune Teller’s horoscopes were always alarmingly accurate, whenever he bet on soccer games he lost’).

I’d agree with other reviewers that this novel is too long – especially because it spends so much time on disparate episodes before tying up its threads – but it partly makes up for its length by some incredibly memorable set-pieces. Three children meet a man in a graveyard whose jaw gradually unhinges to emit red smoke. A wealthy coffee plantation owner possesses a book with a strand of hair from all of his sexual conquests who return in unusual form. A woman’s hair lengthens and lengthens until a man can braid it into three braids each as thick as his forearm.

For much of Build Your House, I agreed with Sharlene Teo in the Guardian that Winnie is one of the ‘disaffected millennial heroines’ that I would call Disaster Women, and which I’ve come to tire of as a fictional trope. I wished we’d get more of the vivid Binh and less of Winnie’s endless moping. But by the end of the novel, I began to see what Kupersmith was doing with Winnie. She’s less a Disaster Woman in the mould of Edie in Luster or Ava in Exciting Times and more like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She’s literally trying to break down and discard her own body. This insight still left me feeling that we got too much Winnie, but at least her travails had some direction.

While this is undoubtedly a flawed novel, I loved its originality and daring, and I think it’s likely to be one of my favourites on the Women’s Prize longlist. In addition, my Waterstones special edition of the novel contained a bonus short story, ‘My Darkling’. This had shades of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Kate Folk axis that I wrote about in my review of Folk’s Out There, but was an exceptional example of this weird sub-genre, so I’ll definitely be looking to read Kupersmith’s earlier short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote Sympathy and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

71Y8n5Q9UOL

First things first: I found The Final Revival of Opal & Nev intensely frustrating. There’s so much potential here, but the novel feels like an early draft of itself. As this is Dawnie Walton’s debut, I hope more of that potential is fulfilled in her next book. I’ve also found it difficult to talk about this novel without intermittently mentioning spoilers. If you want to avoid these, click through to my Goodreads review, which has spoiler tags.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is told as a series of excerpts from oral history interviews collected by journalist Sunny, who also provides a framing narrative for the novel. (This structural choice feels like a bit of a mash-up between two Taylor Jenkins Reid novels – Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo). Opal & Nev were an iconic rock duo in the 1970s, but later split to pursue solo careers, and are now planning a final reunion. Their early days, however, were overshadowed by a concert that turned violent when their black drummer Jimmy was murdered by white racists. Here, Sunny has a personal stake; Jimmy was her father, and was having an affair with Opal when he died.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev turns on a central revelation at the midpoint of the novel, when we find out that what we thought happened at that fatal concert was not the full story. In short, we discover that Nev may have made Jimmy a target of racist violence by falsely telling the thuggish band that he stole their Confederate flag. I was disappointed by this twist; basically, because I feel that twists in novels should make stories more complex, not less so. The initial draw of Opal and Nev for the reader is the question of how two such different people formed a creative collaboration. We fully expect it to fall apart and we suspect it will be because Nev will be unable to recognise his white privilege and the difficulties Opal faces as a radical black female artist. The twist, therefore, is hardly a surprise, it’s a confirmation of what we already knew.

In structural terms, this twist and its placement in the novel robs the rest of the book of any momentum. We know we’re going to watch Opal & Nev’s ultimate decline. From my point of view as a reader – and I acknowledge this might not have worked with Walton’s vision for the novel – it would have been much more interesting if Nev had played no role in Jimmy’s death, but if he and Opal had come to blows over her onstage protest after the concert. Maybe he could even have wrongly blamed her for inciting violence? This would show his obliviousness as a white man, but have opened up more subtle fault-lines between them that were genuinely about race rather than sexual jealousy.

A number of reviewers note that, with the exception of Opal, Walton tends to rely on stereotype, and I would agree; aside from the flattening of Nev’s character, we have the white ‘trailer trash’ racists, the flamboyant gay costume designer, the Bernie Sanders fan who thinks everything is about false consciousness, the greedy record label head honcho… Again, this is only more frustrating because there are flashes of greater insight in her writing. I loved that Opal’s deeply religious sister, Pearl, was not a villain but a source of support, for example, and had a great singing voice of her own. Having said that, I thought that Opal herself was also unevenly developed as a character. Her affair with Jimmy is so pivotal to the novel, but we barely see the two together. There’s also a suggestion that her key conflict is between her desire for recognition and her own values, but I never really felt this – Opal always seemed to come down on the right side of history. Finally, we don’t get enough of Opal and Nev when things were good between them, which means his betrayal doesn’t land with enough emotional weight. Sunny, also, never comes alive in her own right.

There’s a lot that’s good about this book – the imaginative descriptions of Opal & Nev’s hit songs and their stage performances, and the ways in which they intersected with seventies protest culture, are brilliant – but it didn’t quite land for me.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number seven. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Paper Palace and Remote Sympathy

First, an update on my progress with the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the titles I’ve read so far. I’m now thinking that the judges were actually onto something with their off-the-wall picks. Therefore, I’ve decided to expand the number of titles I plan to read from the longlist from eight to eleven. It’s still unlikely that I’ll read the remaining five longlisted titles (Flamingo, This One Sky Day, The Exhibitionist, The Island of Missing Trees and Salt Lick) unless they make the shortlist.

71SR3RkZgeS

The Paper Palace, Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel, is narrated by fifty-year-old Elle, who has returned every summer throughout her life to an idyllic family hideaway at Cape Cod. This summer, she’s there with her three children and her husband, Peter, when she abruptly reconnects with an old flame, Jonas, who is also the keeper of her darkest secrets. The Paper Palace flashes back and forward through time to trace the events since Elle’s earliest childhood as her story also unfolds in the present, a structural choice that works effectively when Heller confines herself to the two central timelines, but can become unnecessarily confusing in the few instances when multiple flashbacks and flash-forwards are employed at the same time.

Numerous reviewers mention the traumatic subject-matter of The Paper Palace. While I don’t believe the central incident of the novel is gratuitous per se, as it is the hook upon which the story hangs, I would certainly concur that the numerous other mentions of sexual abuse, other kinds of childhood abuse and neglect, unlikely accidents and early deaths are indeed gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a book where we can’t witness an old man swimming happily with his friend in the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath without him abruptly drowning, where children are smothered by sand dunes for no reason, where adolescents are constantly exposed to random adults having sex in front of them. (I feel I can mention these incidents freely because they are in no way spoilers for the main plot or the primary or secondary characters’ journeys – which itself indicates how easily Heller could have removed them.) The Paper Palace, despite its incredibly familiar plot-line and flat characters, is a weirdly compelling read, and I think a big part of this is Heller’s car-crash writing – we don’t want to look away because we know there’s going to be something awful on the next page. This is certainly one way to compel your reader, but a good novel it does not make.

Even putting this material aside, The Paper Palace is not a well-executed novel. Elle, Peter and Jonas are all very sketchily characterised and largely unsympathetic. Heller might claim to be exploring the generational impacts of trauma, and to be reflecting her characters’ experience thematically through the string of arbitrary misfortunes that befall other people in this book, but I just didn’t think she pulled it off. There are also small annoyances. The book is weirdly obsessed with Elle’s hymen being intact (so obviously intact a gynaecologist comments on it!) before she has sex for the first time, despite the fact she uses tampons, which perpetuates myths about what the hymen is and how it’s related to female ‘virginity’. Sex scenes are used to stand in for any kind of meaningful emotional development between Elle and her two lovers. And while, unlike some other readers, I felt that it was pretty clear what Elle decides to do at the end of the novel, I simply did not care by this point. Ultimately, this reads like sub-par Jodi Picoult, and I don’t believe it belongs on the Women’s Prize longlist.

cover_9781609456276__id1850_w600_t1615909633__1x

Remote Sympathy, Catherine Chidgey’s sixth novel, alternates between four perspectives on the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald during the final years of the Second World War. SS Sturmbannführer Dietrich Hahn was the camp’s administrator; his sections are narrated from the vantage point of the 1950s when he is being interviewed after his release from prison. His young wife, Greta Hahn, is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 1943, and tells us what is happening to her as it happens. The doctor Lenard Weber is a ‘political prisoner’ in the camp, arrested for an invented crime after Dietrich found out about his pre-war invention, the ‘Sympathetic Vitaliser’, which was intended to cure cancers through the transmission of electric current through the body. His contributions come in the form of letters to his small daughter Lotte, who has been taken with her Jewish mother Anna to another concentration camp, Theresienstadt. A fourth and, in my opinion, superfluous, perspective is an occasional contribution from a chorus of Weimar villagers who live near Buchenwald.

While the synopsis of this novel indicates potentially speculative elements, Remote Sympathy is in fact a straightforwardly traditional and realistic historical novel; Lenard’s ‘vitaliser’ is clearly rooted in pre-war experiments with electricity as a means of rejuvenation, and the principle of ‘remote sympathy’ which supposedly makes it effectual is based on the eighteenth-century experiments of the Scottish surgeon John Hunter. And Remote Sympathy is very good at what it does. It’s convincing and moving. Chidgey uses Dietrich’s self-justifying perspective to explore how he rationalises the horrors of Buchenwald in relation to what he believes were ‘actual’ concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, and we see how Buchenwald did indeed possess weird flourishes to try and hide its true purpose, such as a prisoners’ library and brothel. (And in the grotesque choral sections from the Weimar villagers, it’s reminiscent of Audrey Magee’s The Undertakingwhich was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize back in 2014.)  Its most heartbreaking thread is Lenard’s realisation that he must now pretend as hard as he can that his failed experimental machine may actually be working, in order to save his own life and hopefully that of his wife and child, even as he struggles with lying to Greta about her prognosis.

This is not, however, a novel that I think will stay with me. I’ve simply read too many novels that cover this ground and many of them were equally competent. I’m glad to have read Remote Sympathy and I think it deserves to be longlisted, but it doesn’t offer anything especially new.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. These are numbers five and six. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness , Careless and The Sentence.

Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: The Sentence

hbg-title-9781472156983-26

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Louise Erdrich’s work. I read her acclaimed novel The Round House about six or so years ago. It’s one of those books where, looking back, I’m surprised to find that my review was so positive, because that isn’t how I remember the experience of reading it. The Round House, which deals with the epidemic of sexual violence among Native American women, is undoubtedly an important and accomplished novel, but something about it clearly didn’t click for me – perhaps it was the ‘child’s-eye-view of adult situations’ narrator, a device I really don’t like, or perhaps it was simply too grim.

The Sentence, to me, feels like it was written by a completely different person. Despite some difficult subject-matter, it’s an uplifting read. Our Objiwe narrator, Tookie, has spent ten years in prison for body-snatching and conspiracy to transport drugs across state lines, an offence she was tricked into by friends. Given the over-representation of Indigenous peoples in North American prison statistics, she isn’t surprised to initially receive what amounts to a life sentence, which is eventually commuted due to the efforts of her Objiwe defence lawyer. The Sentence is about what happens next, as Tookie takes a job at Erdrich’s own bookstore (rather sweetly, Erdrich has a bit part in the novel, and isn’t afraid to gently make fun of herself) and starts to be haunted by the ghost of its ‘most annoying customer’, Flora.

Flora is a ‘wannabe Native American’, claiming Indigenous heritage despite being obviously white, and at first, she seems like a ‘wannabe ghost’; her incursions on the life of the bookstore are only very slight. Anybody who’s put off by ghost stories should not avoid The Sentence; Flora manifests only very sparingly, and does not make direct contact with the living. Due to this restraint, Erdrich manages to make Flora chilling in death, even though she was a bit ridiculous in life. When Tookie’s alone one evening in the bookstore, ‘a song began that I knew was not on the playlist. Flora cranked up the volume; it was Johnny Cash singing ‘Ain’t No Grave’. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down… If you’ve ever heard Johnny sing this song, you can imagine.’

The Sentence pulls a number of oddly eclectic themes together; books that can kill, Indigenous religion, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter protests, dealing with stepfamilies, Tookie’s tender relationship with her husband Pollux – who happens to be the retired Potawatomi policeman who originally arrested her. The reason it works, for the most part, is Tookie’s voice. I was immediately captivated by her warmth and humour. Through her, Erdrich makes us as readers believe in all the weirdness this book throws at us, even if I would have preferred it to come together a bit more tightly in the end. The secondary cast are beautifully handled; they genuinely feel like a community that have lived together for a long time. And as a love letter to books themselves, The Sentence is much more effective and much less sentimental than its fellow longlistee The Book of Form and EmptinessI’d be happy to see this on the shortlist.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number four. I’ve already read Great CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness and Careless.