Women’s Prize Winners Reading Project: Grant, Martin, Shields et al.

In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are being encouraged to catch up on all the previous winners. I’d read 14 of them (including Hamnet) as of mid-April and have managed five more since then – plus a reread, a DNF and a skim. I recently reviewed Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of this summer reading post. This leaves just four more for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in November.

 

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)

Some settings have been done to death, but here’s one I don’t think I’d ever encountered before: Israel in the final year before statehood. Grant dramatizes the contrast between Palestine, a doomed British colony, and the Jewish hope of a homeland. In 1946 twenty-year-old Evelyn Sert leaves her home in London, masquerading as a Gentile tourist (though she has Latvian Jewish ancestry) so as to jump ahead of thousands of displaced persons awaiting entry visas. With her mother recently dead of a stroke, she takes advice and money from her mother’s married boyfriend, “Uncle Joe,” a Polish Jew and Zionist, and heads to Palestine.

After six weeks on a kibbutz, Evelyn sets out to make her own life in Tel Aviv as a hairdresser and falls in with Johnny, a Jew who fought for the British. It’s safer to be part of the colonial structure here, so she once again passes as Gentile, dyeing her hair blonde and going by Priscilla Jones. In a land where all kinds of people have been thrown together by the accident of their ethnicity and the suffering it often entailed, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. For Evelyn, who’s never known anywhere apart from suburban London and arrived in Palestine a virgin, the entire year is a journey of discovery. Will a place of ancient religious significance embrace modern architecture, technology and government? Grant really captures this period of transition for an individual and for a nascent nation of exiles. I loved the supporting characters and the nostalgic look back from half a century on.

Favorite passages:

In a country with its face turned towards the future, our stories sat on our shoulders like a second head, facing the way we had come from. We were the tribe of Janus, if there is such a thing.

With hindsight it always seems easy to do the right thing, but we were trying to decide something in those days that people don’t often get a chance to have a say in and it was this: would we be a free nation after two thousand years of wandering or would we always be a subject race? Would we be ghetto Jews or new Jews?

 

Property by Valerie Martin (2003)

A compact study of slavery that unfolds through the relationship between a New Orleans plantation owner’s wife and her husband’s mistress. Manon Gaudet has never been happy in her marriage, but when their slave girl, Sarah, bears her husband a second child, she decides she has had enough of silently condoning his behavior. A slave uprising and cholera and yellow fever outbreaks provide some welcome drama, but the bulk of this short novel is an examination of the psyche of a woman tormented by hatred and jealousy. Ownership of another human being is, if not technically impossible, certainly not emotionally tenable. Manon’s situation is also intolerable because she has no rights as a woman in the early nineteenth century: any property she inherits will pass directly to her husband. Though thoroughly readable, for me this didn’t really add anything to the corpus of slavery fiction.

 

A reread (as well as a buddy read with Buried in Print):

Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997)

“The whole thing about mazes is that they make perfect sense only when you look down on them from above.”

Larry Weller is an Everyman: sometimes hapless and sometimes purposeful; often bewildered with where life has led him, but happy enough nonetheless. From the start, Shields dwells on the role that “mistakes” have played in making Larry who he is, like a floral arts catalogue coming in the mail from the college instead of one on furnace repair and meeting Dorrie at a Halloween party he attended with a different girl. Before he knows it he and a pregnant Dorrie are getting married and he’s been at his flower shop job for 12 years. A honeymoon tour through England takes in the Hampton Court Palace maze and sparks an obsession that will change the course of Larry’s life, as he creates his first maze at their Winnipeg home and gradually becomes one of a handful of expert maze-makers.

The sweep of Larry’s life, from youth to middle age, is presented roughly chronologically through chapters that are more like linked short stories: they focus on themes (family, friends, career, sex, clothing, health) and loop back to events to add more detail and new insight. I found the repetition of basic information about Larry somewhat off-putting in that it’s as if we start over with this character with each chapter – the same might be said of Olive Kitteridge, but that book’s composition was drawn out and it involves a multiplicity of perspectives, which explains the slight detachment from Olive. Here the third-person narration sticks close to Larry but gives glimpses into other points of view, tiny hints of other stories – a man with AIDS, a woman trying to atone for lifelong selfishness, and so on.

From my first reading I remembered a climactic event involving the Winnipeg maze; a ribald chapter entitled “Larry’s Penis,” about his second marriage to a younger woman and more; and the closing dinner party, a masterful sequence composed almost entirely of overlapping dialogue (like the final wedding reception scene in her earlier novel, The Box Garden) as Larry hosts his two ex-wives, his current girlfriend, his sister and his partner, and a colleague and boss. What is it like to be a man today? someone asks, and through the responses Shields suggests a state of uneasiness, of walking on eggshells and trying not to be a chauvinist in a world whose boundaries are being redrawn by feminism. That process has continued in the decades since, though with predictable backlash from those who consider women a threat.

It seems slightly ironic that Shields won the Women’s Prize for this episodic fictional biography of a man, but I found so much to relate to in Larry’s story – the “how did I get here?” self-questioning, the search for life’s meaning, “the clutter of good luck and bad” – that I’d say Larry is really all of us.

One of Shields’s best, and quite possibly my winner of winners.

My original rating (2008?):

My rating now:


Currently rereading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

 

A skim:

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (1995)

An annoying thing happened with this one: the back cover blurb gave away a central theme. It’s one I’m keen to avoid yet feel I have encountered disproportionately often in fiction, especially recently (I won’t name any titles as that would give it away instantly). Dunmore writes nicely – from my quick skim of this one it seemed very atmospheric – but I am not particularly drawn to her plots. I’ve read Exposure for book club and own two more of her novels, Talking to the Dead and Zennor in Darkness, so by the time I’ve read those I will have given her a solid try. So far I’ve preferred her poetry – I’ve read three of her collections.

A favorite passage:

“It is winter in the house. This morning the ice on my basin of water is so thick I can not break it. The windows stare back at me, blind with frost. … I can see nothing through the frost flowers on the glass. I wonder if it is snowing yet, but I think it is too cold. … I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.”

 

And a DNF:

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

Patroclus is a disappointment of a prince. He has no chance of winning Helen of Troy’s hand in marriage, and exile awaits him when he is responsible for an accidental death. As a foster child in the household of another king, he becomes obsessed with Achilles. The two young men take part in music lessons and military training, and Patroclus follows Achilles away from the palace to be taught by a centaur. That’s as far as I got before I couldn’t bear any more. The homoerotic hints are laughably unsubtle: (of a lyre) “‘You can hold it, if you like.’ The wood would be smooth and known as my own skin” & (fighting) “he rolled me beneath him, pinning me, his knees in my belly. I panted, angry but strangely satisfied.”

I got a free download from Emerald Street, the Stylist magazine e-newsletter. The ancient world, and Greek mythology in particular, do not draw me in the least, and I have had bad experiences with updates of Greek myths before (e.g. Bright Air Black by David Vann). I never thought this would be a book for me, but still wanted to attempt it so I could complete the set of Women’s Prize winners. I read 77 pages out of 278 in the e-book, but when I have to force myself to pick up a book, I know it’s a lost cause. As with the Dunmore, I think it’s safe to say this one never would have gotten my vote anyway.

 

The final four to complete my project:

(On the stack to read soon)

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville – free from mall bookshop

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney – public library copy

How to Be Both by Ali Smith – public library copy; a planned buddy read with B.I.P.

 

(To get from the university library)

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

 

Read any Women’s Prize winners lately?

19 responses

  1. I read When I Lived in Modern Times when it was first published and didn’t get on with it at all but I wonder if I might give it another try. Loved Larry’s Party, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was pleasantly surprised by the Grant. It reminded me of Nicole Krauss’s work, and the only other kibbutz-set novel I’ve read, Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are so good at projects! I remember reading the Valerie Martin when the paperback came out, and enjoyed it very much – but I had read little on similar themes. For some reason, I’m not attracted to Dunmore’s fiction, but I love ancient Greek/Roman settings, although I’ve not managed to read either of Miller’s novels yet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miller’s novels should be right up your street!

      I judge all slavery novels against a few of my favourites, such as Kindred by Octavia E. Butler and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd … very little lives up to them.

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  3. I’ve come back to this project just recently as well! I’m reading A Spell of Winter at the moment and after that only have The Idea of Perfection to go! I didn’t like either of the other Dunmores I’ve read (House of Orphans and The Siege) – but after reading the first chapter, I have some hope of this one – I thought it was beautifully atmospheric and I didn’t find her prose as distancing as I have before. (No chance of it beating her classic children’s thriller Fatal Error though 🙂 )

    I don’t think we’ll be on the same page with our final Women’s Prize rankings, judging from this post – as you know, I was impressed by Property (I thought the examination of white supremacy via Manon did bring something new to slave narratives, and was a smart choice for a white writer) and I loved The Song of Achilles (though I did read it before the flood of Greek retellings started). I found When We Lived in Modern Times very dry, if educational, and I didn’t get on with Larry’s Party, though if I have time before November, that is one I’ll re-read, as I read it so long ago and have completely forgotten it.

    Good luck with the rest of the list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you manage to get hold of the Grenville yet? I still have a spare copy sitting here for you, along with various other books I was going to give to you in March! If you’re still in need, I’ll post it to you. I have it in mind that this is your birthday month anyway 🙂

      I did think Dunmore’s writing was very atmospheric here. I liked the winter, and the house … just not what happened in it! I’ll be interested to hear how you react to the themes and incidents. She wrote in such a number of genres. I do recommend her earlier poetry.

      Our taste rarely seems to overlap, alas, though it’s always pleasing when it does. I was surprised to like the Grant so much because I’d DNFed her latest book. I thought she got the place and time just right, and it helped that the setting was new for me. If you do get a chance, I hope you’ll also find a reread of Larry worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s so kind of you – and I’m amazed that you remember when my birthday is! I still don’t have a copy of the Grenville, but I don’t want to put you to any trouble! Will drop you an email.

        I think our non-fiction tastes probably overlap more than our tastes in fiction, with all the medical and popular science stuff 🙂 I actually liked the sound of Larry’s Party from your summary, so maybe I will connect with it more on a re-read.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. We could do a buddy read of the Grenville if you like. I should just check that your address is the same as what I have from Feb. 2019.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Good work! I have read Larry’s Party as far as I recall …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m reading or rereading various Shields novels as buddy reads with Marcie this year. It’s been a lot of fun! Happenstance is up next if you’re interested.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No more reads that are not on my TBR apart from review copies until it’s one shelf! But thank you.

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    2. You’re ever so disciplined 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve finally gotten into the Grant, now that my current stack is tidier, and I’ve still got the Dunmore in the wings (thank you for maintaining that spoiler…I still can’t think of what it would be). You already know how much I enjoyed revisiting Larry. And I’ll just repeat, here, what I’ve already said back-channel about the repetition (because what’s more fun than repeating about repeating?) that you remark on with Larry…that I think it’s deliberate, a reminder to us, readers, that each of us rehearses certain parts of our identity, especially as we move into times of change, reminding ourselves what’s still intact with our identities. The Martin, I read years ago, and what I recall being so interesting about it is how much it focusses on the relationships between the women and in the house (which distinguishes it from a number of other novels on the same theme). Kaye Gibbons has one which does that too, but it’s less literary and shorter, too, IIRC. (I liked it too, though.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was brought up on Greek myths (mother a classics teacher) and adored Miller’s Circe, so her book’s been on my TBR list for a while, Martin? Tick. Shields? Tick. I’m doing better than usual at keeping up with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t suppose you fancy collecting the full set of Women’s Prize winners then? 🙂

      Like

  7. Hooray for Carol Shields! I should probably read that one one of these days…
    I love reading about this project!

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    1. You must read Larry’s Party!

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  8. […] In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s (previously Orange/Baileys) Prize, people have been encouraged to read all of the previous winners. I duly attempted to catch up on the 11 winners I hadn’t yet read, starting with Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne as part of a summer reading post; and When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (a reread) in this post. […]

    Like

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