The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.
This month I read books loosely gathered by the theme of history. Each book was very different from the rest, both in subject matter and style.
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007 winner)
Synopsis: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. And Richard, a shy English writer, is in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. As the horrific Biafran War engulfs them, they are thrown together and pulled apart in ways they had never imagined.
As the summary suggests, this is a book that creates and weaves together several different lives. It is set before and within the Nigerian Civil War, and uses these characters to tell you that story. This is a fantastically complex book – I feel I’ll have to read it again to fully understand all the themes and ideas that are used. Although it can be classed as a post-colonial literary work, colonialism is not the only subject it deals with: love, requited and unrequited; social class; gender and personality are all included.
The characters come together and fall apart repeatedly as the book progresses, showing the tumultuous nature of the time they are in. The story really is unpredictable. Occasional time gaps only intensify this, until you’re made to feel as though events are changing for you, as the reader, as fast as they are for the characters involved. I didn’t find I had any particular favourite characters, rather I was intrigued by all of their stories quite equally!
Character voice is definitely one of the highlights of this book. Each POV is so different from the other, each character fully built.
Property – Valerie Martin (2003 winner)
Synopsis: Manon Gaudet is unhappily married to the owner of a Louisiana sugar plantation. She misses her family and longs for the vibrant lifestyle of her native New Orleans, but most of all, she longs to be free of the suffocating domestic situation. The tension revolves around Sarah, a slave girl who may have been given to Manon as a wedding present from her aunt, whose young son Walter is living proof of where Manon’s husband’s inclinations lie.
Publisher: Little, Brown
I’m not sure how I feel about this book. It is told from the perspective of Manon Gaudet, a slave owner’s wife, who hates her marriage, her home at the plantation and Sarah, given to her as a slave. The discomfort I had in reading this book is clearly intentional. Gaudet is a protagonist you are happy to hate, concerned as she is more with her own problems than anyone else’s. She is repeatedly vindictive, especially towards Sarah, who she views not as a slave but as a rival towards her husband’s attentions, despite herself acknowledging Sarah hates him too.
I can understand the literary impact of this book’s unflinching portrayal of a slave owner during a backdrop of uprisings in New Orleans. But I couldn’t help but feel throughout that I would rather be reading Sarah’s story. Perhaps this is the point.
I will say that the book is not long, but it is quite complete. The plot cannot really falter within the less than 200 pages of the story, making the cruelty of events in it even more stark.
Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels (1997 winner)
Synopsis: Jakob Beer is seven years old when he is rescued from the muddy ruins of a buried village in Nazi-occupied Poland. Of his family, he is the only one who has survived. Under the guidance of the Greek geologist Athos, Jakob must steel himself to excavate the horrors of his own history.
Although there is a plot to this book, a linear timeline that tells the story of Jakob’s life, it seems almost secondary to the poetic experience you receive as a reader. Essentially, the story focuses on Jakob, who is saved after his parents are murdered by Nazis and his sister disappears. It is told from his POV throughout, except for a part at the end told by another character, Ben, after the end of Jakob’s life.
There are so many ideas in this book it’s difficult to simply list them. Memory is recurrent, as Jakob is haunted by what he can and cannot remember. Loss seems to permeate every page. The natural world seems also to be a character in its own right – a continuous correlation is drawn between history of people and history of the earth.
This is the kind of book you have to take your time with. Michaels’ poetry is richly immersive. Every word seems deliberate and it’s hard not to get caught up in the horrors of WW2 as witnessed by Jakob and, in a later and shorter narration towards the end, Ben, who is the son of concentration camp survivors. It did feel more like poetry than prose to me at times, despite the fact that it’s definitely a novel. Your enjoyment of this book will be split between the intricate care of Michaels’ writing and all of the exposure to what humanity is, that continues throughout.
I have not done a lot of reading this month, so this challenge was a nice way to actually pick up books! The diverse selection here was definitely a challenge, but it’s good to change it up now and again.
The six book shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (which is, of course, what all of these books are past winners of), was also announced this month. Let me know if you’re planning to read them, or you’d like to see a review from me on any.
Next month, I hope to read books centring around the theme of women.
Here’s what I’ll be reading:
The Power – Naomi Alderman (2017 winner)
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver (2005 winner)
When I Lived in Modern Times – Linda Grant (2000 winner)
Check out my Reading Women Challenge reviews for March and follow my blog to be notified when I post the next review!