Finished my first of five Women’s Prize 2020 shortlist. I was delighted how readable it is. But it was not as amazing as it was hyped up, which is a shame. I would have liked it more without all the buzz raising the expectation. But knowing it was the (joint) winner of the Booker Prize 2019 and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2020, I just thought, is this really one of the best books of these couple of years?
The book “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. (Goodreads)” It goes from current day all the way back to 1895. Location wise, in addition to London, there are characters living in the North (true North: Newcastle and Berwick upon Tweed, have you ever came across a novel set in Berwick upon Tweed?). A couple of them are overseas. Their families and lives could be roughly summarised as “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The way these twelve women’s life are told one by one as if the author is asking us to compare and contrast. ‘Which life is better? Whose life is the more tragic? Do you see yourself in them? If you could be one of them, who would you rather be? Things are always going to be difficult. Which kind of hardship is the hardest?’
The book is made up of four groups of three women, so twelve women in total. The three women within each chapter are directly connected, e.g family, friends, colleagues. Across chapters, they all have some points of contact. This is not a new technique and I had to circle all the names in order to not miss things out. (‘Have I seen this name somewhere? Where was it? Shall I go back and look for it?’ It breaks the flow and frustrates me no end.) To be honest, I don’t think this network does much to the overall idea of the book. The book is good without it; so it feels a bit artificial and unnecessary. However, if the network did not exist, the book would become a collection of individual short stories.
Here’s my attempt at a summary. Chapter one is mostly on lesbian experience. Chapter two on rotten sex between men and women (with a lesbian episode in the second person). Chapter three on work/hard labouring and family responsibilities (with a rotten sex episode in the second person). Chapter four on black people living in the small English communities in 20th century and mostly the mother-daughter connection. I like the first woman in the first chapter best. The whole first chapter is the best I think.
I like how the views on topics like feminism, LGBT, racism are spelt out in reasonable, human and balanced ways. There are no campaigners shouting aggressively. In these pages, one can stick up fiercely in the workplace against her dominating and dismissive male colleagues and later fully approve of her daughter wanting to be a housewife and a full-time mother. One can celebrate and embody the lesbian lifestyle while another can hardly bear it but still treat the former as a friend. One is crushed by the lack of equality working as a taxi driver or a cleaner, another achieves wealth and status through first-class education. One can be politely rejected by in-laws, another can be warmly welcomed into the living room of strangers. When one is young, her parents did not understand her feminism; when the same one is old, her daughter thinks her feminism is outdated.
One more thing to mention quickly is it has very few full stops. Line breaks and paragraph breaks did the full stops’ job. It took me about three pages to get used to it and by the end of it, I was quite happy to live without full stops. Instead of being gimmicky, this unconventional punctuation makes the reading flow quite well.
Is it a really amazing book that I want to tell everyone about? Not sure. But it is certainly worthwhile.