The longlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been announced, I am looking forward to some great reads. Sixteen novels have made it to the list, four of them I’ve already read – which leaves me with twelve new ones to look forward to.
The ones I’ve read are:
H(a)ppy || Nicola Barker
A beautiful blend of language-structure-form in this dystopic novel.
Manhattan Beach || Jennifer Egan
A tale of love and betrayal in a world in which right and wrong were not clearly defined. A nice read, not entirely convincing.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine || Gail Honeyman
A touching story about a young woman growing into herself after a lifetime of putting herself down. Nice but slightly predictable.
Elmet || Fiona Mozley
A tale about a young boy growing up in a world in which the gap between have and have nots is increasing. Almost poetic at times, brutal when necessary. The Man Booker judges had their eyes on Mozley too in 2017.
The 2017 Winner
A powerful novel about a world in which women are the natural leaders. Alderman makes it very clear that female leadership in itself does not make for a better world. Her world is not peaceful, corruption is all around and charlatans bewitch their followers. I felt that the message Alderman gave us overtook the literary quality of her novel. The message however is strong and clear.
SHORT LIST 2017
A new longlist has been published. I’m delighted I’ve already read and described five of the longlisted novels. One of them was my favourite for the Man Booker 2016, I hope Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing will fare well in this contest. I’ll add links to my previous blogs on Thien, Perry, Atwood, Gaitskill and Tremain. Seven more to read!
The longlisted novels (the ones I’ve read in italics):
Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins
Atkinson once more convinces with an intricate novel that combines characters and stroy lines well. The ending leaves you thinking about what to believe or not believe: was she telling a dream or the story of a true life. A contender for the short list and the price.
Anne Enright: The Green Road
A lovely novel about family relationships. I felt that at times Enright was trying too hard and was pushing too hard for ‘completeness’. The novel could have done with some ‘trimming’.
Melissa Harrison: At Hawthorn Time
A lovely novel by an author who shows us that intricate story lines can be combined in a subtle way. The quintessence of Britishness dealing with true and desired escapes to the country and the real life going on there. A contender for the short list and the prize.
Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life
What shall I say: if only Yanagihara had shown some restraint. There were too many moments in which I felt I could not take one more mishap in the main character’s life. A contender not for its literary merits but for the content, a life ruined by abuse.
Petina Gappah: The Book of Memory
At times slightly too constraint, otherwise a beautiful novel about being colorless in a coloured world. Structure and content are combined cleverly. Gappah might just be a contender.
Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
A slighlty over the top novel that falls victim of its own ambition: there is just too much of everything, McInerney, who has the makings of an excellent writer, not managing to keep things under control.
Cynthia Bond: Ruby
A definite contender for A Little Life: Bond’s Ruby is abused and raped and beaten a lot. Oprah has praised Bond for her courageous novel, Halle Berry can win an Oscar portraying Ruby, I was overwhelmed by the too realistic descriptions of violence just too often. In those passages Bond refrained from violence she made very clear that she can write. I really loved the almost poetic way in which she described Ruby and nature. If Ruby makes the short list, I hope it is for this poetic quality and not for Ruby being such a courageous story of survival.
Shirley Barrett: Rush Oh!
Geraldine Brooks: The Secret Chord
Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Jackie Copleton: A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Rachel Elliott: Whispers Through a Megaphone
Vesna Goldsworthy: Gorsky
Clio Gray: The Anatomist’s Dream
Attica Locke: Pleasantville
Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen
Sara Nović: Girl at War
Julia Rochester: The House at the Edge of the World
Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love
Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton
Rachel Cusk: Outline
Laline Paull: The Bees
Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
Ali Smith: How to be Both
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests
Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
Grace McCleen: The Offering
Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
Sara Taylor: The Shore
Jemma Wayne: After Before
PP Wong: The Life of a Banana
I was delighted to find out I had already read five novels on the longlist, which also means that I still have fifteen to go. The next months I will give my opinion on the books selected by the jury. Let’s see whether I’ll agree with them and whether my winner is also going to be their’s.
The Shortlist (in no particular order)
Ali Smith || How to Be Both
My definite favourite for the Booker Prize. Though I still have to read all of the competitors, I think Smith has a good shot at winning the Bailey’s.
Halfway through the 3rd paragraph there is going to be a serious spoiler. Be warned!
When I started reading How to Be Both I was slightly apprehensive: was I about to read a very long poem? Why did the first pages have such a strange shape? Then it dawned upon me that its protagonist, painter Francesco del Cossa, had died centuries ago. The jaggedness of the first pages had to do with his ghost being transported to 21st century Cambridge. Getting used to his new situation as a ghost, Francesco regains his ability to talk fluently. Towards the end, when he is about to disappear again, his words become raggedly. almost poetic again.
How to Be Both contains two stories: Francesco observing a young girl who has studied one of his paintings; the other the young girl, George, telling her story. I started reading about Francesco, only to discover later on that there are also versions of How to Be Both that start off with George. As it turned out my e-book contained both: after I had finished George’s story, it relooped. This time starting with George. I am glad I was given Francesco’s story first. As he became increasingly intrigued by the young girl and her strange behaviour (not counting the things he as a Renaissance painter would obviously find strange, such as taking pictures with her I-pad), I also found myself increasingly wondering who the girl was and what part she was going to play in How to Be Both? I am not sure whether I would have been just as intrigued if I had read about George first and next about the painter she is that preoccupied with. Truth of the matter is that it is all hypothetical: I was given Francesco first and I am pleased about it.
Francesco talks about his life, his aim to become a famous painter and the people he knew. When he talks about painting it becomes quite apparent that he is totally dedicated to his art. We meet George after her mother has died; she remembers the time she visited Italy with her mother and brother and went to visit the beautiful fresco’s painted by a rather unknown painter, Francesco del Cossa. Their stories are intertwined in an intricate way. It is not just the fact that they kind of meet, its is also the fact that there are certain parallels in their lives and personalities. Francesco (or rather Francesca) speaks her opinionated mind through her paintings, George through questioning facts. Both their mothers fed this tendency by never letting them accept the way things are at the surface: both girls have to look for what is beneath the surface.
How to Be Both is poetic, philosophical and challenges its reader. In return the reader is rewarded with a love story, albeit one structured and told in a significantly different way. I was deeply touched by George and her sorrow, I rooted for Francesco’s goal to become a famous painter. I was sad when I turned the last page.
Sarah Waters || The Paying Guest
A strong novel, rightly nominated. I would be surprised if it didn’t go through to the short list. A potential winner.
One thing one can say about Sarah Waters, she knows how to write a fast track novel. Never a dull moment in The Paying Guests, which does not mean that we are lead from one exciting event to another. On the contrary, apart from a murder nothing much happens. The emotional turmoil however that is caused by two women falling in love is enormous. In The Paying Guests mother and daughter Wray have to accept two paying guests into their house; with hardly any income at all their debts are growing and growing, the rent can set them at ease. Daughter Frances grudgingly accepts the arrival of Liliane and Leonard Barber and tries to accommodate their presence into her life. At a certain point however she finds herself drawn towards Lilian Barber. At first she hides her feelings and does not let Lilian know that she is drawn to her. Then it becomes clear that Lilian has started to fall in love with Frances as well. The two indulge in a secret love affair, taking advantage of every second they are on their own. Frances allows herself to contemplate a future living with Lilian and shares these thoughts with her lover. Lilian at first doubts and cannot see herself leaving her family or her husband. After having spent a week of holidays with her husband she realises that she too wants to spend her life with Frances. Precisely at that moment they are caught by Leonard. In the hassle that ensues he gets hit with a heavy ash tray and dies. In the panic of the moment they hide the body, from that moment on their lives are determined by fear of discovery, of being split apart of not telling anybody the truth. The tension also makes Frances doubt her love for Lilian. When a young man is accused of having murdered Leonard both women have to face up to the fact that an innocent man might get the death sentence for a crime Lilian had committed. And having to face the fact that neither of them is brave enough to tell the truth. Frances is going through a turmoil of emotions which Waters describes in detail. One can feel Frances’ anguish exuding from the pages. Her emotions (fear, doubt, anger) are real and convincing. I could accept her doubting, worrying, fretting, missing and at the same time despising Lilian because any normal woman would have those emotions. It takes Waters’ talent to write it down in such a convincing way. When at the very end the jury declares the young man innocent Frances is relieved and anguished at the same time. She is convinced that Lilian will never look at her again. She however follows Frances and in meeting again under less stressful circumstances they both feel that there might be a future for them together. One cannot imagine fireworks and highly exuberant music accompanying this scene, it is tentative and therefore highly convincing. I loved The Paying Guests: it was an emotional rollercoaster thundering to its finale.
Laline Paull || The Bees
A surprising insight into the lifes of a working class bee who changes her fate. I loved the poetic and fierce descriptions of bee life. I’d not be surprised or disappointed if Paull were to win.
An allegory in which animals are the main subject is not quite new: Orwell took us to Animal Farm and I can remember cute little rabbits living on a hill who even made it to a movie (and an awful Art Garfunkel song). Paull brings something new to this succesful genre: an animal we not normally associate with cuddliness,the bee. Fiona 717 and her fellow bees become almost cuddly, her ‘engine’ and her sting make you realize she can also be very aggressive and prepared to go to extremes to defend the hive and the queen. What I loved about The Bees is the way Paull contrasted the almost totalitarian state of the hive and the intricate internal system the bees use to show each other where the best honey can be found, what task they have to perform and their extreme sense of smell. Those descriptions border on the lyrical and contrast heavily with the corrupt way the hive is lead by a small group of high ranking bees. Fiona 717,a mere sanitation bee, is kept stupid simply by not feeding her as much as the more priviliged bees. The moment she eats more, her senses develop. Nature versus nurture one might say. Fiona 717 is not just a plain sanitation bee. The moment she is born it becomes clear that she is destined to do something special. Towards the end of the novel, when Fiona has already grown into an important forager her final role becomes clear: a beautiful one which I shall not reveal. You just have to read The Bees yourself. Paull also shows the way the human world and the ‘bee’ world collide: bees dying of poison, the human abruptly taking away the honey causing death and destruction, the wasps becoming even more aggressive through eating too much sugar. To be frank, I did not really care for all the bloody fights, they are just not my piece of cake. They are sufficiently compensated however by the beautiful descriptions of dances, flowers and the characters of some bees: Sir Linden who turns out to be quite alright, the vicious Sage or adventurous Lily. I really enjoyed this novel which did not just give me pleasure in words and imagery, it also made me look more kindly on bees.
Anne Tyler || A Spool of Blue Thread
An edgy novel about an all american family with some loose ends. I loved the rather vicious second part which ruined any romantic image of the family’s ancestors. Good enough to win, I doubt it.
At 2/3rd of the novel A Spool becomes edgy. Having followed an well-known concept Tyler surprises with an unexpected twist. She reveals the truth behind some family stories; the family myths turn out to be slightly less idyllic. Anne Tyler introduces us to the Withshanks, the prototype family in novels or series: a well-behaved family living a respectable life with the exception of one black sheep, son Denny. Several other small dents in the family pop up from time to time: son-in-law Hugh who skips from career to career, son Stem who turns out to be adopted but nevertheless follows in his father’s shoes, daughters Amanda and Jeannie who have always felt that the boys just mattered more and parents Red and Abby who with the years start having more and more health issues. By returning back in time unexpectedly Tyler shows us how Red and Abby met and, more important, how Red’s parents Junior and Linnie met. The myth of the hard working caring family patriarch and his loving self-sacrificing wife is shattered successfully. As is the myth of America as the place where everybody is equal and has equal chances. The Whitshanks find that despite their beautiful home in a upgrade area they are not considered upgrade by their neighbours; providing for their family as successful carpenters with a successful business does not automatically lead to a better place in society. I especially liked the last part of A Spool. It was pleasant reading about the Whitshanks, it was a treat to discover the truth about the family myths. A Spool of Blue Thread sets of as one of those rather bland cupcakes and turns out to have a secret ingredient in the icing: hot peppers. A spicy combination that does the trick and lifts A Spool from bland into the category of good novels.
Rachel Cusk || Outline
A strong novel in which hardly anything happens. We get to know the main character through the converstations she has with the people she meets during a stay in Athens. Beautifully written and opiniated. I’d not be surprised if Cusk were to win with this novel depending on words not action.
In Outline hardly anything happens. The main character, the omnipotent I, takes us along in a week spent in Athens as a teacher of a writing course. In Greece she spends time with friends, old and new. A large part of the novel consists of conversations with those friends, a smaller part of the stories she has her pupils write. We do not know a lot about our main character, not even her name is revealed. Still we get to know her through what she says and how she reacts to what the others say. She speaks her mind and does not hesitate to give her opinion on relationships, friendship and other important things. She makes it known if she thinks her partner is not telling the truth or interpreting affairs in his / her advantage. Conversations furthermore are definitely high standard: no silly talk for our main character. Even with women friends topic are deep and thoughtful. I liked that the main character is calm and talks in a slow, considerate way. It made me slow down my reading and enjoy Cusks’s words and phrases. Outline is not an easy novel, Cusk shares too many almost philosophical thoughts for it to be an easy read. It is a beautiful novel though through the careful selection of words and the delightful way sentences are structured. Cusk writes delightfully and leads her readers along in an almost gentle way. An appreciated moment of reflection in a time in which fast action dominates.
Emily St.John Mandel || Station Eleven
I can understand the novel being nominated, I do find that Station Eleven is too cliché on some points to be a potential winner.
In Station Eleven Mandel describes what happens when the earth’s population is drastically reduced by the Georgian Flu. All the things we take for granted (electricity, I-phones, internet, blogging, running water or food) have gone. Survivors have to start over again. They have to rely on their own common sense, creativity, aggressiveness or religious fervour (=madness). Mandel introduces several characters who all share a (kind of) relationship with actor Arthur Leander (who dies of a heart attack on page 1). Since they do not all survive the flu we meet some of them in the years or even hours before the flu and others after the flu has struck. This leads to a lively composition jumping from year to year. I must admit that I was least impressed by life after the flu. The exhortations of theatre group Travelling Symphony and of the Prophet reminded me too much of Mad Max, The Road or Blade Runner, never getting to their level. I was very impressed on the other hand by Mandel’s descriptions of the final moments of people dying or facing a totally different world. The death of Miranda for instance could have become a terrible cliche. Mandel fortunately takes it to another, impressive level. The way Jeevan and Clark face a new world is also described impressively. Level-headed, not beating around the bush. Clark who through sheer luck has been left on a flu free airport survives through making tough choices. He and the other survivors on the airport know that there are people on board of the airplane that was last to land. They stay away from it because they know those people have been infected. They do not help, they chose to live. In this way they also send a rapist to certain death into the woods, he cannot stay if he does not behave properly.
Clark collects items from the ‘old’ world and slowly starts gathering more and more artefacts. His collection of I-phones, high heeled shoes and motorcycles becomes an museum. At the end of the novel The Travelling Symphony and The Prophet arrive at the airport and fight their final battle. Kirsten, an actress in the Symphony, turns out to own a comic book, Station Eleven, given to her by Arthur Leander which he also gave to his son, who turns out to be the Prophet and which was written by Arthur’s first ex: Miranda. The comic bears a striking resemblance to reality after the flu.
At the end of the novel Mandel expertly brings things together. Only one character is not present at the airport – in person or in memory: Jeevan. I suspect he is living in the village that can be seen from the airport’s control tower: it has electricity. Civilization is slowly starting to return to earth.
Emma Healey || Elizabeth is Missing
Though I liked the novel, I am surprised it has been nominated. It awakens one to the harshness of dementia, I cannot say it is a literary heavy weight.
What shall I say? I felt for Maud Horsham and her daughter Helen. Maud buying peaches every day because she simply cannot remember having bought them before. All over the house papers are pasted on walls and doors to help remember Maud about things she has to or must not do. And worrying about her friend Elizabeth who has disappeared, not being able to remember that Elizabeth has taken ill and has been admitted to the hospital. It is disconcerting and confronting to read about the process that destroys more and more of Maud’s memory. I could absolutely sympathize with Helen: her sorrow in watching her mother deteriorate, her annoyance when Maud keeps on buying peaches or keeps on asking about Elizabeth. It does not make for a good novel though. The novel in itself gets interesting when the disappearance of Elizabeth is linked to the disappearance of Sukey, Maud’s sister. She disappeared many years ago and though family and police looked for her she was never found. In Maud’s mind the disappearances become interchangeable, thinking about Elizabeth she will find herself remembering her home and Sukey in the forties. Searching for Elizabeth Maud accidentally stumbles upon the truth about Sukey.
As I said, I felt for Maud and Helen. I could understand the despair and annoyance of the latter. I found myself thinking ‘not again’ when Maud brought up Elizabeth yet again. I wonder what would have happened if Healy had not introduced the mystery element. Would the process Maud was undergoing have been enough to sustain the novel? Or would Elizabeth is Missing have become one of those novels describing the awful process of dementia and the sorrow it causes to family and friends, banking on recognition not on literary quality? Fortunately Healy did introduce the link between Elizabeth and Sukey and thereby transformed Elizabeth is Missing into a decent mystery novel.
Marie Phillips || The Table of Less Valued Knights
Though I loved Phillips taking the mickey out of serious Arthurian legend and had some good laughs, I am really surprised at The Table being nominated. Phillips novel is pleasant and funny, it is certainly not a literary heavy weight. Or was the jury that smitten by someone daring to challenge Arthurian truths?
I read The Table and decided that it was a pleasant novel, but not worthy of being blogged about. I really liked the adventures of the Knight of the Table of Less Values Knights and I did appreciate Phillips making fun of Arthurian truths or defending the right to live life as one pleases. As far as I was concerned it did not make a great novel though. As I said, being an Arthurian modern novel addict I definitely enjoyed the way Phillips undermined given facts and truths about Arthurian myths. I loved the idea of the ‘real’ knights practicing jumping out of their chairs in order to be the one to claim the challenge, I loved the fact that in The Table hierarchy and traditions were thrown overboard, I definitely smirked reading about the vain knights riding along in their shiny armour suffering from heat and itching all over, still I do not get this nomination. With due respect to Fforde and Keyes whose novels I absolutely love, I do not see them being nominated. It makes me wonder what I missed; maybe I have to give The Table a second go and try and discover what made the judges select it.
Rachel Seiffert || The Walk Home
A strong contender for the prize, mostly due to the way words are expertly combined to paint the picture of families trying their utmost to make things better. And failing time and time again.
I must admit that two things stood between me and a correct understanding of The Walk Home: the Scottish (which is rather hard to read if you’re not a native) and the thing about lodges, Orange March and bands. I did not realize that what I had seen on television from time to time – protestant men walking through Ulster provoking their catholic neighbours – was an item in Glasgow as well. Having grasped the concept of the lodges I understood why mother Brenda and daughter-in-law Lindsey were not keen on having Graham drumming in a band.
In The Walk Home Seiffert combines two story lines: Polish contractor Josef trying to get a job done and some years earlier Scottish Graham starting life with his young bride Lindsey in Dunchapel Glasgow. Their son Stevie is the combining factor: he is given a job by Josef. What matters in both story lines is people fighting to better their life, people making the same mistake over and over again, people not capable of understanding that life is about taking and giving. Though I sympathize with Lindsey for wanting to better her life, I feel pity for Graham who just cannot grasp living outside of Dunchapel. For Lindsey a better life must be lead in a better area, for Graham a better life is working hard as a contractor and sustaining his family even in hard times, being comfortable in the area you have lived in all of your life with your family and friends. Lindsey, having been left with her – I suspect abusing father – by her mother, cannot prevent herself from making the same choice: she leaves her young son Stevie with his father. She cannot break the pattern, just as her mother-in-law Brenda cannot change her pattern, just as Josef cannot change his pattern. The tragedy of The Walk Home is people recognizing that they are not handling things as they should but not being capable of doing it differently. They try to live their lives as good as possible, not grasping that change is possible.
I felt for Stevie who is torn between the people he loves, who is left to his own devices far too much (skipping school all the time) and who ends up making his mother’s choice: he leaves home. Having returned to Glasgow to work with the Polish contractor you sense that he is ready to return to his family. Seiffert leaves us though with his father staying at his grandparents accepting that he cannot force Stevie to come home. He is ready to welcome him with open arms however. The Walk Home is a beautifully written bleak story about love, failure and inability. I can certainly understand it being long listed for the Bailey’s Prize.
Patricia Ferguson || Aren’t we Sisters?
Though I liked the novel I was surprised it had made it to the short list: too many clichés, main characters that never came alive, a topic that might have been important many years ago but not in this day and age.
What shall I say? Ferguson has used a technique placing people who haver never met in a circumstance which forces them to work together and bond. In this case Lettie, staunch advocate of contraceptives (the novel is situated in the thirties of the previous century when women still gave birth to many children), Norah her naïve landlady, Rae a rather famous actress who is in hiding because of her pregnancy and Mrs Givens, the caretaker of a former orphanage. The combination of these women could have been fascinating if Ferguson had managed to get beyond the cliché and that, unfortunately, she does not achieve. Even the development of the women is a cliché: bitchy and heartless Lettie turns out to be quite all right, Norah naturally discovers her natural beauty and inner strength and Rae of course loves her new born baby, Mrs Givens could audition for Downtown Abbey (and would turn out to be one of many characters carrying a secret). Aren’t We Sisters isn’t a bad novel, it is just not a very good novel. Given that it is on the longlist for the Bailey’s I was expecting more depth and interesting characters. I fail to see why Ferguson has been nominated, it might be Lettie’s feminist touch. As far as I am concerned, Ferguson does not deliver.
Heather O’Neill || The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
I loved the beautiful way in which O’Neill describes main character Nouschka discovering that she has her future in her own hands, I was less attracted to the almost freak show element of Nouschka’s world.
In The Girl Who Was Saturday Night we are introduced to the 1994 creative slum of Montreal. Though main character Nouschka and her brother Nicolas do not have a penny to their name, they are the twin children of famous chansonnier Etienne who used to drag them along to his performances on the stage and on telly. As a result Nouschka and Nicolas are famous in their own area: populated with arty, creative or criminal neighbours. Nicolas blames his childhood (mother unknown, father using them to improve his career prospects, feeble grandparents raising them) for dropping out of school and choosing to become a petty criminal. When we meet Nouschka she has slowly started to realize that she herself has to make sure her future is less grim. Nouschka enrolls in high school, thus severing the clingy ties between her and Nicolas. He on the other hand sticks to the behaviour that got him kicked out of school, out of marriage and out his own role as a parent to his young child. Though Nouschka encounters quite some obstacles she perseveres: her marriage to former child ice escapade star Raphaël, her pregnancy, they do not change her mind about becoming a writer, and needing an education to get there. She finishes high school and enrolls into university. Nouschka will turn out allright, prospects for Nicolas and Raphaël are grimmer. The Girl Who Was Saturday Night joins the ranks of coming of age novels; Nouschka’s proces from carefree girl to responsible woman and mother follows the usual pattern. The main difference being the almost freak show world in which Nouschka lives: a part of Montreal that is so extreme that I wonder whether its occupants recognize it. I must admit that as far as I was concerned this world was quite over the top and I could not stop thinking O’Neill had been influenced heavily by the likes of Tom Waits and early Madonna in her type casting. I noticed that I started drifting away when another freak element was introduced, to get drawn back into the novel the moment O’Neill wrote one of many beautiful insights into Nouschka’s growing up process. Towards the end of the novel the latter became more important, in this way the novel expertly mirrors Nouschka. I could have done with a novel that was situated in a world slightly less over the top because I felt that it diverted me too much from what the novel was really ab