Women’s Prize 2019: Longlist Review Excerpts and Shortlist Thoughts

There’s a reason I could never wholeheartedly shadow the Women’s Prize: although each year the prize introduces me one or two great novels I might never have heard of otherwise, inevitably there are also some I don’t care for, or have zero interest in reading. Here’s how I fared this year, in categories from best to worst, with excerpts and links to any I’ve reviewed in full:

 

Loved! (5)

  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder: This starts off as a funny but somewhat insubstantial novel about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants, morphs into a crass sex comedy (featuring a merman), but ultimately becomes a profound exploration of possession, vulnerability and the fluidity of gender roles. It’s about the prison of the body, and choosing which of the many different siren voices calling us we’ll decide to listen to. It’s a Marmite book, but perfect Women’s Prize material.

 

  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans: Reminds me of On Beauty by Zadie Smith, one of my favorite novels of this millennium. It focuses on two Black couples in South London and the suburbs who, in the wake of Obama’s election, are reassessing their relationships. Their problems are familiar middle-class ones, but Evans captures them so candidly that many passages made me wince. The chapter in which two characters experience mental instability is a standout, and the Black slang and pop music references a nice touch.

 

  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. I ached for all three main characters: It’s an impossible situation. There’s a lot to probe about the characters’ personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration. I found it remarkable how the letters, which together make up not even one-fifth of the text, enhance the raw honesty of the book.

 

  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near the bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Nationalism, racism, casual misogyny – there are lots of issues brewing under the surface here. Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. I ended up impressed by how much Moss conveys in so few pages. Another one custom-made for the Women’s Prize.

 

  • Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn: I just finished this the other day. It’s a terrific hybrid work that manages to combine several of my favorite forms: a novella, flash fiction and linked short stories. The content is also an intriguing blend, of the horrific and the magical. After her brother-in-law’s defection, Alina and her husband Liviu come under extra scrutiny in Communist Romania. Bursts of magic realism and a delightful mixture of narrative styles (lists and letters; alternating between the first and third person) make all this material bearable.

 

 

Did not particularly enjoy (2)

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: Magic realism and mental illness fuel a swirl of disorienting but lyrical prose. Much of the story is told by the ọgbanje (an Igbo term for evil spirits) inhabiting Ada’s head. The conflation of the abstract and the concrete didn’t quite work for me, and the whole is pretty melodramatic. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other inside-madness tales I’ve read, I can admire the attempt to convey the reality of mental illness in a creative way.

 

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney: This book’s runaway success continues to baffle me. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.

 

 

Attempted but couldn’t get through (3)

  • Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton: A historical novel marked by the presence of ghosts, this is reminiscent of the work of Cynthia Bond, Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward. It’s the closest thing to last year’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I only read the first 36 pages as neither the characters nor the prose struck me as anything special.

 

  • Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: Full of glitzy atmosphere contrasted with washed-up torpor. I have no doubt the author’s picture of Truman Capote is accurate, and there are great glimpses into the private lives of his catty circle. I always enjoy first person plural narration, too. However, I quickly realized I don’t have sufficient interest in the figures or time period to sustain me through nearly 500 pages. I read the first 18 pages and skimmed to p. 35.

 

  • Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li: Vague The Nest vibes, but the prose felt flat and the characters little more than clichés (especially scheming ‘Uncle’ Pang). I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland so was expecting there to be more local interest for me, but this could be taking place anywhere. Reviews from trusted Goodreads friends suggested that the plot and characterization don’t significantly improve as the book goes on, so I gave up after the first two chapters.

 

 

Not interested (6)

(Don’t you go trying to change my mind!)

  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Updated Greek classics are so not my bag.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Meh.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns: Nah.
  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: I’ll try something else by Luiselli.
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden: The setting of a fictional African country and that title already have me groaning.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: See the note on Barker above.

 


The shortlist will be announced on Monday the 29th. Broder and Moss will most likely make the cut. I’d love to see the van Llewyn make it through, as it’s my favorite of what I’ve read from the longlist, but I think it will probably be edged out by more high-profile releases. Either Evans or Jones will advance; Jones probably has the edge with more of an issues book. One of the Greek myth updates is likely to succeed. Luiselli is awfully fashionable right now. Emezi’s is an interesting book and the Prize is making a statement by supporting a non-binary author. Rooney has already won or been nominated for every prize going, so I don’t think she needs the recognition. Same for Burns, having won the Booker.

 

So, quickly pulling a combination of wanted and expected titles out of the air would give this predicted shortlist:

 

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

 


Eleanor, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!

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26 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2019: Longlist Review Excerpts and Shortlist Thoughts

    1. I can deal with stream-of-consciousness-esque writing and unnamed characters, etc. … what would really be taxing, though, is that I hear it doesn’t have chapters or even many paragraph breaks?

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      1. It does have some chapters but they are very few. Yes its stream of consciousness and does take a little getting into but this was an outstanding read. One of the best books I’ve read this year

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I always arbitrarily ignore the books I don’t want to read and hope they don’t get shortlisted – it worked last year 🙂 Lost Children Archive and My Sister, The Serial Killer are certainly skippable.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved Normal People and those ‘if Greek myths are your bag’ books of both Pat Barker and Madeleine Miller! Thought Sister the Serial Killer was ok though nothing stunning, thought Milkman was a bit dull and rambling and thought Ordinary People was – well ordinary! Guess takes all sorts to make a book prize reading world!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have Swansong to read, I watched the film about Capote starring Philip Seymour Hoffman the other day which piqued my interest, also I have In Cold Blood to read. I went through a phase of trying to read books listed for prizes but have become a bit jaded; so many of them don’t seem likely to stand the test of time..some of them seem more like snapshots of what is considered cool or cutting edge or worthy at a particular moment in time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In Cold Blood is terrific. I remember watching the Capote movie when it first came out.

      Apart from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, I pretty much pick and choose from prize lists whatever interests me. Sometimes I like a few longlist titles more than anything that gets onto the shortlist, or wins.

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  4. Right now I feel most tempted by Ordinary People, Ghost Wall and Bottled Goods (based on your enthusiasm for it). I’ve only read American Marriage and liked it, but not sure it should win. And I have Ghost Wall on hold.
    It’s always interesting to hear all the different reactions and opinions to prize-listed books!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The letters as a device was clever – it was just their style jarred on me. They simply didn’t read like the letters a married couple would send to each other

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    1. I see what you mean. I suppose there is a certain suspension of disbelief required whenever people are writing letters in the modern day. But maybe the slightly detached, literary nature of the letters (especially Celestial’s) reflects their growing distance from each other?

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      1. We had a long discussion about this in the book club. One member, who works in a prison, pointed out that inmates don’t tend to share a lot of personal comment in their letters because they know someone will read them other than the intended recipient.

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  5. I can’t believe you’d dismiss Praise Song for the Butterflies for it being a fictionalised country, the author explained her reasoning about this in a Goodreads discussion group I joined in and I was impressed by the research she did when she finally did decide to write this novel, after initially not wishing to do so – it was after visiting the slave castle in Ghana and meeting two women who told about the ritual servitude that came back post-colonialisation. It might not make the shortlist, but I thought the novel was excellent and I’ve since got a copy of The Book of Harlan, equally well-researched and also based in part on real characters.

    I have only read this one and Freshwater, and I’m also a fan of that novel, which I found incredible, for the author’s ability to create characters out of voices that have occupied the mind of a young woman in such a believable way, for me, it ignited the imagination of the reader and I felt great empathy for Ada, even though we rarely heard from her – and the framing of it all through the belief system of the ‘ogbanje’ was cleverly portrayed.

    It will be interesting to see who makes the shortlist anyway, there’s certainly a diversity of opinions out there.

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    1. I generally dislike books that are set in unnamed or unspecified places. It wouldn’t be a total deal-breaker, but the reviews I’d seen of Praise Song were mixed. If it had made the shortlist, I might have reconsidered. I know you and Lonesome Reader were big fans.

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