Reviews – Women’s Fiction Prize 2020

If you follow my blog, you might be aware I have spent the past few months doing the Reading Women challenge. This involves reading the past 25 winners of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

This month, I took a break to read the six shortlisted books in contention for this year’s prize (which was announced yesterday!)

FYI: I have not reviewed The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, which is the sixth of the shortlisted books. This is because a) the book is very long, and b) it’s the final of a trilogy which I haven’t read, and I didn’t want to spoil the story for myself!

The plot of the book revolves around Thomas Cromwell, a major political figure at the time of Henry VIII. The first book of the series, Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker prize.

Reviews

Weather – Jenny Offill

Synopsis: Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practise her other calling: as an unofficial shrink. Then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast 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 she 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.

Publisher: Granta Books
Pages: 224

This book is told by a woman who is constantly concerned with other people. She tries to care, whether it is through being told stories by visitors at the library where she works, or answering her friend’s emails, or using a taxi service just because it’s nearly out of business. This also extends to her family, of course — worrying she is not a good enough parent to her son, if her husband is “weary” of her. She has also spent a very long time caring for and about her brother, who is a recovering addict starting a family of his own. Each of these things take demands on her time alongside the consistent, existential dread of climate change. This is presented in the title as ‘weather.’ Just weather. Which I think is a very accurate way to portray this global crisis. How else are each of us interacting with the climate every day, except for what the weather is? 

I really enjoyed the concise nature of this story. I think it’s quite skillful to be able to get a neat snapshot of a world in political upheaval in so few pages (this is told around the time of Trump’s election in the US), in addition to giving an intimate look at family life. The style does feel very stream of consciousness, because it is written in short, sharp bursts of prose, jumping from topic to topic: the narrator’s life at home, an email, a query from a customer at the library. It sometimes takes you a moment to recall what exactly the new setting is that you are in, but I do think this is deliberate. We are unaccustomed to this method of storytelling and the unease directly parallels the world the narrator (and we) live in.

A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

Synopsis: 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. 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.

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 368

Women’s tales are often relegated to sidelines, especially in stories of war and battle. In this book however, the writer takes one of the most famous wars in literature – the Trojan war – and writes women into it. There is a large cast, from Calliope, the muse, to Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon, to more niche Greek characters like Laodamia. The story is told interspersed with Calliope’s overviews on why she is giving a writer inspiration to write about the women in the Trojan war. One of the lines I think really sums up these stories is a moment when the writer is worrying his story will turn out to be a tragedy instead of an epic and Calliope remarks: “men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it?” And: “heroes don’t become heroes with carnage.” This idea that the only stories worth telling are bloody, battlefield encounters is woven throughout the story. There is a very poignant line at the end of a chapter about a nymph called Oenone, which I won’t quote because I think it needs to be read. But at the heart of it, this book says that women are heroic too, even if they are objects, even if the whole war itself is founded on Helen as an object.

There is an idea throughout the story that people are simply pawns. Humans to the gods, the gods to other gods. It creates an idea of blamelessness, but blame is still apportioned in the book and revenge is still taken. Why would that occur if everyone was acting mindlessly? It also speaks to an interesting parallel especially with women, and their role as chess pieces between men. For example, one of my absolute favourite parts of this book are Penelope’s chapters — recounting The Odyssey through letters to her absent husband. It is a point of view we don’t often see. Her endless patience, the requirements for her to remain loyal and virtuous even while her husband doesn’t, her husband who seeks adventure rather than home. It is a very creative way to retell the famous story.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

Synopsis: On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home? Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.

Publisher: Headline Publishing
Pages: 384

This is very much a novel about all the separate parts of life. The story is told in pieces, an omniscient narrator dipping into past and present, and different characters. For example, Hamnet’s character as he races to find someone to care for his sister, or the past, where his mother and father first meet. His mother, Agnes, and her mother, or the story of a cabin boy inadvertently setting off a chain of events sending the plague to Hamnet’s house. The narration frequently employs epithets: ‘the father,’ ‘the husband,’ ‘the boy’ etc. Although this can sometimes become annoying in a book, here I found that it fit the nature of the story, which is very lyrical and poetic. By this I mean the prose itself is lyrical, of course, but also the book itself gives off the impression that it’s an oral, campfire kind of tale. It is the kind I can visualise well as a film, because of the pulled-back nature of it, that nonetheless allows you to delve deeply into each character’s mind.

There is an air of foreboding around this whole story, of course, as there always is when we know the ending. It is a story about loss but also presence — the empty space beside you, the awareness of the people in your house. I think this way of portraying a void as nonetheless something full – “he lays himself down in the dip her body has made” – is part of what makes the tragedy of this book so poignant. At times I felt parts of the story were a little more drawn out than were necessary; however, I think the length does contribute to this idea of one moment stretching out forever, as does Hamnet’s story being interspersed among snippets of his parents’ lives. It is an easy book to get caught up in!

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

Synopsis: 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.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 464

This book won the Booker Prize in 2019 (jointly), which I think was very deserved. I wrote a brief review on Goodreads after I read it. It was a while ago now, but this mutli-generational expanse of stories isn’t easily forgotten. It is a series of linked tales about twelve different women, and how their particular backgrounds and identities affect their idea of themselves and their Britishness. It is a story about black women, and one of the most masterful things about this story is it tells you exactly how many different unique stories of Black British women there are, despite many repeated narratives. The overarching story is centred around a theatre show, creating a very all the world’s a stage atmosphere, about how identity is often minutely constructed.

One of my favourite things about this book is the neatness with which these stories are drawn together. Each new chapter is exciting, delving into a new life, and I think the variety of including so many characters shows the writer’s skill in being able to draw seemingly disparate stories together. There is so much diversity in this book, but not in a tokenistic way – the exploration of difference is real and emotional. The story moves back and forth across timelines and generations, but there is a very tidy finish that lets you know exactly how aware Evaristo is of her characters throughout. It is definitely not an overhyped book.

Dominicana – Angie Cruz

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must 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.

Publisher: John Murray Press
Pages: 336

This is a captivating story that is brutally honest about immigration for women. It is told by Ana, who is only fifteen when she is married and pregnant and moved to New York City, which is a study in contrasts. Is it a place of opportunity or a place full of fearful and unfamiliar things? I think this is what captures the immigrant experience so faithfully. And like New York, Ana is a duality. Child or woman? Lucky or unlucky? Rich or poor? There is no definite answer to any of these, because there never is an answer, and added to her very present character voice, this makes Ana a character who is alive and jumping from the page, even when what she is going through is incredibly hard to read. Throughout the story, her idea of want is contrasted with duty, and what she owes to her family, and therefore what she must do because of it.

One of the most interesting things about the narrative is the way Ana sometimes becomes an omniscient narrator, describing the lives of her family back home as though she is with them. She is everywhere and nowhere — she witnesses the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X, watches anti-war protests for Vietnam, sees the racism of Jim Crow effected on her dark-skinned brother in law, catches the overturning of her government in flashes of conversation. Ana is a testament for the life that happens everywhere everyday, touched by moments of shattering historical significance but separate from them. Every day she watches a woman lay flowers at the place where Malcolm X was killed and she wonders who this woman is. But she never finds out.

I really enjoyed all of these books. I think the storytelling skill present in each one is visibly obvious, and combined with excellent plots I really found each one a joy to read. Hamnet was the overall winner of the prize, perhaps unsurprising as stories about English history always perform well! But I will refrain from giving my amateur opinion about which book I think was best as I really have no idea. 😂

Are you planning to read any of these books? Have you read any? Let me know in the comments!

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