Tonight at midnight the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist will be announced. So, a few hours left to be cheer for one’s favourite books on the list and guess what will actually make the cut. During the last two months, I have read (almost) all books of the longlist I had not yet read. Having worked my way through the list, I can say that I appreciate the variety in styles and themes. Although I also questioned the inclusion of some titles (especially when thinking about some ommissions from the list). I tried to categorize all the books and within each category, they are roughly sorted from ‘liked most’ to ‘liked least’. For most of the books you find longer reviews on my IG and/ or Goodreads.
Anna Burns Milkman
Set during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Burns draws the portrait of a society on the edge where the smallest thing can make someone suspect and violence is deeply inscribed into the very fabric of the community. Burns creates a narrator with a memorable voice, conveying a feeling of claustrophobia while also delivering humorous observations. She especially looks at the gendered experiences. The narration – very much stream-of-consciousness – barely uses names (for people, locations, groups) and thus makes the book very specific to its context but also open to being read as a comment on many conflicts. I also wrote about the book and the discussion of ‘difficulty’ in another blog post.
Akwaeke Emezi Freshwater
Freshwater follows Ada, a Nigerian girl, from her birth into her adulthood. Ada is the answer to her parent’s prayers, who wished for a girl but got more than they bargained for: Ada is an ogbanje. Emezi’s lyrical writing shifts between the spirit ‘we’, Ada, and specific spirit manifestations. Through these perspectives Ada’s at times harrowing life is told; there is abuse, sexual violence, loss, mental health issues, heartbreak, spiritual dilemma, a suicide attempt. It is a book about all the aforementioned topics, but at its core, it is about a spiritual journey as well. Emezi also manages to rope in a portrayal of desire and gender deeply intertwined with Ada’s ogbanje identity thus transcending Western cisheteronormative models.
Sarah Moss Ghost Wall
One summer Silvie’s father, a history enthusiast and bus driver, takes her and her mother to partake in an experimental archaeologists camp – re-living the Iron Ages no less – with a professor and three of his students. In less than 150 pages Moss tells a lyrical story about the question of what is “Britishness”, class, domestic abuse, but also female solidarity. And while Silvie’s father and the professor, divided by class united in their misogyny, bicker about theories and interpretations of the Iron Ages’ history and their different ways to relate to it, searching for an identity and genealogy, the reader starts to suspect that the one continuous streak from the Iron Ages to the current time is violence against women. I appreciated the structure of the book and its climax, though the last few pages felt a bit rushed. All in all, I loved this one.
More Books I’d Love To See On The Shortlist
Valeria Luiselli Lost Children Archive
A family drives from New York to Arizona. The parents’ marriage draws to an end, the children, at times perceptive, at times oblivious, play and bicker on the backseats, the trunk is filled with boxes. The parents work on their new projects: The father records an ‘inventory of echos’ about the Apache and their historical resistance. The mother works on a story about children crossing the Mexican-US border. This book layers sounds, (hi)stories, quotes, photos to show entanglements and continuities while also dissecting the family dynamics. The only thing which irked me: The way the story is told one could get the impression that Apache / Native Americans, in general, are something solely of the past.
Tayari Jones An American Marriage
Celestial and Roy are married for a year and excited for their future when Roy gets arrested for a crime he did not commit and subsequently sentenced for 12 years. Can their relationship survive this situation? And how does Andre, a friend of Roy and Celestial, fit into the constellation? In this novel, one hears the echos of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. The question is: How does a racist ‘justice’ system affect people’s lives but also how the expectations to just get through/ “stay strong” weigh on everyone. This is a very compelling read. I breathed through it. The novel does not shy away from showing complex, complicated characters who try and err in a system stacked against them.
Sophie van Llweyn Bottled Goods
This novella is set in 1970’s Romania. Alina has married Liviu – a man her mother deems a bad match. She is happy, but then her brother-in-law deflects to France and the pressure by the secret police on the couple increases. Told in many brief chapters (showing off also van Llewyn’s skill as a master flash fiction writer), alternating the narrative voice from third to first person and the themes from realistic to magical, this book is very effective at portraying surveillance, the constant fear of being ratted out, the scheming, and also the absurdity of such a system.
Books I Enjoyed (Somewhat) But Don’t See On The Shortlist
Yvonne Battle-Felton Remembered
1910. A woman sits on the deathbed of her adult son, who is accused of having driven a streetcar into a shop. The ghost of her sister implores her to tell the story of how the son came into being. Beautiful writing of a harrowing story about remembrance and resilience.
Oyinkan Braithwaite My Sister, The Serial Killer
Ayoola keeps killing her boyfriends and Korede, her sister, keeps helping her clean up – until Ayoola lays eyes on a man Korede is interested in too. A really entertaining, darkly funny read.
Madeleine Miller Circe
Circe who has always been an outsider in her own home and only really grows into herself when she is exiled to Aiaia and becomes the witch she maybe was always supposed to be. There are quite a few Classical myths in which Circe makes her appearance, Miller weaves these together masterfully, filling in gaps, and creating a coherent development of Circe.
Diane Evans Ordinary People
This novel follows two couple who seem to fall apart. Evans certainly has a strong feel for place and time, as well as portraying very distinct characters which feel all too real. Personally, I am just not so much interested in this kind of (straight) relationship study.
Pat Barker The Silence Of The Girls
The novel tells the story of Briseis who once was a queen until Achilles attacked her city, killed her family, and captured her. While I appreciated the writing in general, there was something lacking. The book is supposed to tell the Briseis’ story but it feels more like it takes Briseis as a vehicle to tell Achilles’ story once again.
Sally Rooney Normal People
Conner and Marianne meet in school and develop a relationship despite their (class, popularity) differences. I cannot fault the writing and there are some good ideas but I just couldn’t bring myself to care for this on-off relationship.
Lillian Li Number One Chinese Restaurant
When Jimmy Han, owner of the popular Beijing Duck House, plans to open up a new (high-end fusion) restaurant, chaos ensues. This book is full of drama and turns. An entertaining read but I wished for a bit more substance (and more food writing!).
Books I Did Not Get On With
Bernice L. Mc Fadden Praise Song For The Butterflies
The novel tells the story of a family breaking apart, about the utter violence suffered in ritual servitude, but also a story of defiance and survival. The writing was straight-forward, without frills – which would be fine but the characters are also often quite one-note or unnecessary (why does it need US American saviours without that actually being dissected?). But worst of all, I often felt as if McFadden did not trust me as a reader. Every so often she sets scenes or describes something just to add a sentence which again explains how to read it.
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott Swan Song
When I first read the synopsis of the book I was intrigued: A novel about the socialites Truman Capote befriended and, in the end, used for his work. I read roughly a hundred pages and put it aside for now, I just did not get on with the narrative and never felt the wish to continue reading. (I then tried the audiobook but that made it worse. The narrator trying to imitate Truman Capote’s voice just felt offensive, to be honest.) If it makes the shortlist, I might try again.
Melissa Broder The Pisces
As most people know by now, this (infamous?) novel is about who is kinda lost: she is writing on her PhD for many, many years, no end in sight (but her funding will run out soon), and her longtime relationship breaks up. After she hits rock bottom, her sister Annika, who lives in Venice Beach, asks Lucy to house- and dog-sit. In turn, she could stay in her nice beachfront home and even get a hefty sum of money, so she can concentrate on writing and go to group therapy. Well, Lucy falls in love/lust for a merman. I do see that this novel tried to bridge a lot of things: from erotica to quite metaphorical writing (the nothingness, the sealine as a borderland, fantasy/reality…) while creating a “different” female protagonist. Also, there are some worthy, thoughtful paragraphs on depression etc. For me, in general, the novel did not work. I asked myself once again, is there no other way to create “edgy”, possibly unlikeable female characters without a) showing them passively having bad sex, b) writing about shit and bodily fluids constantly (at this point, it feels like a tired trope, to be honest), and most importantly c) let them be super discriminating.
Which books are you rooting for?