Reading the Shortlist

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary prizes. It is awarded annually to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the preceding year. The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 shortlist was announced on 21 April and the winner is to be announced on 9 September. That’ll give me about four months to read five out of the six, I thought to myself, and I can ‘judge’ which I think it’s the winner. That’ll be fun! (Why one book short? Reason below.) Since that thought formed in my head, I have run into a couple of small problems: firstly, how pricey they are. I acutely came to the realisation that the Prize does not only judge the books as pieces of literature and gives them the admiration and respect due, it’s also a commercial machine that gives the shortlisted authors lots of cash. Secondly, they are out of stock. Maybe next year I should check their availability and price when they’re longlisted instead of shortlisted.

Nevertheless, I was not deterred – I’m armed with a Kindle which is a best friend in this situation. With its help, I managed to read a sample of each book and had a ‘feel’ for them. Here are the shortlisted books, a brief blurb from Goodreads, and my first impression. Note that my first impression is based on the first one or two chapters of the book so it’s likely to be unreliable/unfair. I’m sorry but that’s all I have to go on for now. But I’m also not sorry because if a book is not gripping even into its second chapter, how likely is it that I’m going to read the whole thing?

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.

As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.

Thoughts? This is a good story in a straightforward way. You can tell just from the blurb, stuff happens. Especially if you compare it with the one below for example. It’s not good/bad or right/wrong thing, just different. The writing lets the story itself take centre stage, which is easier to follow and enjoy (compared to A Thousand Ships below, for example, in which the writing is deliberately poetic and kind of gets in the way of storytelling). I’m curious to know who/what Ana chooses in the end.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Joint Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2019

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood. Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

What do I think? I’m honestly not sure what I think about it. The sample is a lot shorter than usual. It finishes before I can make any sense out of it. One thing stands out is there are no full stops and even very few commas. The paragraphs are broken up into sentences –
where there is a full stop traditionally, there is a new paragraph
which gives the flow of thoughts a sense of ‘being interrupted’ or not fluid
that is an example just in case you wonder why my paragraphing has gone weird

It’s on a subject I’m not familiar with but would like to know more. It’ll be a challenge for me, both the subject as well as the style.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective.

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash. The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all… Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.

Initial response? This is the one I’m least fond of. I’m sure the story will get more interesting later on, but I don’t like the voice of Creusa, who is the protagonist in the first chapters I sampled. She makes the story sound very, um, ordinary, if you consider the drama of the situation. The celebration and the disaster both feel quite distant and muffled through her eyes. Maybe this is on purpose, but I’m not a big fan. I’ll still read the whole book for this project. It’ll be funny if I come back a few weeks later saying how much I love it and how wrong I was. We will see!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Widely regarded as two of the greatest works of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel’s peerless, Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have dazzlingly charted the rising arc of mercurial Tudor plotter, politician and power broker Thomas Cromwell. Now, in The Mirror & the Light she brings her trilogy to its final, thrilling conclusion.

From a bloodied and tormented child on the rough-and-ready streets of Putney, to the service of the country’s most rich and powerful, Thomas Cromwell has ascended to the highest echelons of Henry VIII’s tumultuous court. He has survived the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and inveigled his way into the King’s confidence, overseen the overthrow of two queens and taken revenge on those who betrayed his former master. Now all of England lies at his feet, ripe for innovation and religious reform. But as fortune’s wheel turns, Cromwell’s enemies are gathering in the shadows and the question remains: how long can anyone survive under Henry’s cruel and capricious gaze?

Eagerly awaited and eight years in the making, The Mirror & the Light completes Cromwell’s journey from self-made man to one of the most feared and influential figures of his time. Told with immediacy and pace, Mantel’s novels immerse readers in her Tudor world; rich with the sights, smells and textures of 16th century England. No other novelist is so successful in conjuring the intrigue, in-fighting and complex machinations of the machine of courtly politics. In her hands these novels form an unrivalled picture of royalty and common experience, duty and desire, conflict and loyalty. But the crowning glory of the trilogy is Cromwell himself, portrayed with passion, pathos and energy as politician, fixer, husband, father, subject and as a man who both defied and defined his age.

How much am I likely to read this? One hundred per cent. But remember earlier I said I’ll read five out of six? This is the one that I’m not going to read at the moment. The reason is firstly, unless something disastrous happens, I wholeheartedly believe this is the winner without even reading it, just by knowing how much I loved the first two books in this series. Secondly, I’m not in a hurry reading his enemies ganging up on him and the tragic end of Master Cromwell. (Thirdly I want a paperback to match my two previous paperbacks, which is not available until next year.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell

Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

This one? It’s very highly praised even among the shortlisted six. This is Shakespearan England, which is very similar to the historical time frame and setting of The Mirror and the Light. It would be a direct comparison. Will it be as good as Wolf Hall

Weather by Jenny Offill

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years, she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience – but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks… And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in – funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

This one is short. The sample is short, again. So I haven’t got a clear idea where it will go. It reads like a woman recording her days, interaction with her son, her husband, and just people in general in her living perimeter. There must be more to it to be shortlisted. I hope it does!

Here’s a list of criteria that this year’s judges are looking for in the winning book:

  • excellence, originality, creativity, accessibility,
  • a really amazing book to read,
  • I describe this book in such a way that every single person I talk about it to will want to buy the book,
  • I want my eyes to be open to a world that I have not been exposed to before,
  • that speaks to people, that’s of the now,
  • it has to say something really important about the contemporary moment.

I’m slightly surprised about the ‘contemporary’ and ‘now’ criteria since three out of the six are historical drama. As a non-native speaker, I particularly like ‘accessibility’. I really look forward to loving and talking about one or even a few of these books in that passionate way. I’m ready and excited to have my eyes opened.

Let me know if you’re reading any of these, or even better if you’re following the Women’s Prize this year as well!

 

(Cover image shows the judges for this year and the shortlisted books, taken from womensprizeforfiction.co.uk)

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