Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Leilani, Lockwood, and Lyon) & Predictions

Tomorrow, Wednesday the 28th, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. I have read just over half of the longlist so far and have a few more of the nominees on order from the library – though I may cancel one or two of my holds if they don’t advance to the shortlist. Also, my neighbourhood book club has applied to be one of six reading groups shadowing the shortlist this year via a Reading Agency initiative. If I do say so myself, I think we put in a rather strong application. We’ll hear later this week if we’ve been chosen – fingers crossed!

The three longlisted novels I’ve read most recently were all by L authors:

 

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie’s voice is immediately engaging: cutting, funny, pithy. It reminded me of Ava’s in a fellow Women’s Prize nominee, Exciting Times, and both novels even employ a near-identical metaphor: “I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat” (Dolan) versus “all the kids stacked underneath my trench coat rejoice” (Leilani). They are also both concerned with how young women negotiate a confusing romantic landscape and look for meaning beyond a dead-end career. The African-American Edie’s entry-level work for a New York City publisher barely covers her rent at a squalid shared apartment. She’s shagged every male in the office and is now on to one she met online: Eric, a white, middle-aged archivist with an open marriage and a Black adopted daughter.

As Edie insinuates herself into Eric’s suburban New Jersey life in peculiar and sometimes unwitting ways, we learn more about her traumatic past: Both of her parents are dead, one by suicide, and she had an abortion at age 16. Along with sex, her main escape is her painting, which is described in tender detail. There are a number of amusing scenes set at off-the-wall locations, like a theme park, a clown school, and Comic Con. Leilani has a knack for capturing an entire realm of experience in just a few pages, as when she satirizes current publishing trends or encapsulates what it’s like to be a bicycle delivery person.

But, as a Goodreads acquaintance put it, all this sharp writing is rather wasted on the plot. I found the direction of the book in its second half utterly unrealistic, and never believed that Edie would have found Eric attractive in any way. (His interest in her is beyond creepy, really.) What I found most intriguing, along with the painting hobby, were Edie’s interactions with other Black characters, such as a publishing company colleague and Eric’s adopted daughter – there’s an uncomfortable sense that they should have a natural camaraderie and/or that Edie should be some kind of role model. I might have liked more of that dynamic, instead of the unbearable awkwardness of temporary instalment in a white neighbourhood. Other readalikes: Queenie, Here Is the Beehive, and On Beauty.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Priestdaddy is one of my absolute favourite books, so Lockwood’s debut novel was one of the 2021 releases I was most looking forward to reading. It took me a while to warm to, but ultimately did not disappoint. It probably helped that I was familiar with the author’s iconoclastic sense of humour. This is a work of third-person autofiction – much more so than I’d realized before I read the Acknowledgments – and to start with it feels like a flippant skewering of modern life, which for some is all about online personality and performance. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.”

Midway through the book, she receives a wake-up call in the form of texts from her mother summoning her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. “It was a marvel how cleanly and completely this lifted her out of the stream of regular life.” Shit just got real, as they say. But “Would it change her?” she asks herself. Apparently, this very thing happened to Lockwood’s own family, which accounts for how heartfelt the second half is – still funny, but with an ache behind it, the same that I sensed and loved in Priestdaddy.

It is the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. As the protagonist tells her students at one point, “Your attention is holy,” and with life so fragile there is no time to waste. What Lockwood is trying to do here is even bigger than that, though, I think. She mocks the whole idea of plot yet takes up the mantle of the “social novel,” as if creating a new format for the Internet-age novel in short, digestible sections. I’m not sure this is as earth-shattering as all that, but it is entertaining and deceptively deep. It also feels like a very current book, playing the role that Weather did in last year’s Women’s Prize race. (See my Goodreads review for more quotes, spoiler-y discussion, and why this book held personal poignancy for me.)

 

Consent by Annabel Lyon

I’m always drawn to stories of sisters and this was an intriguing one, though the jacket text sets it up to be more of a thriller than it actually is. After their mother’s death, Sara, a medical ethicist, looks after Mattie, her intellectually disabled sister. When Mattie is lured into eloping, Sara’s protective instinct goes into overdrive. Meanwhile, Saskia, a graduate student in French literature, feels obliged to put her twin sister Jenny’s needs first after a car accident leaves Jenny in a coma. There are two decades separating the sets of sisters, but aspects of their experiences reverberate, with fashion, perfume, and alcoholism appearing as connecting elements even before a more concrete link emerges.

For much of the novel, Lyon bounces between the two storylines. I occasionally confused Sara and Saskia, but I think that’s part of the point (why else would an author select two S-a names?) – their stories overlap as they find themselves in the position of making decisions on behalf of an incapacitated sister. The title invites deliberation about how control is parcelled out in these parallel situations, but I’m not sure consent was the right word to encapsulate the whole plot; it seems to give too much importance to some fleeting sexual relationships.

At times I found Lyon’s prose repetitive or detached, but I enjoyed the overall dynamic and the medical threads. There are some stylish lines that land perfectly, like “There she goes … in her lovely coat, that cashmere-and-guilt blend so few can afford. That lovely perfume she trails, lilies and guilt.” The Vancouver setting and French–English bilingualism, not things I often encounter in fiction, were also welcome, and the last few chapters are killer.

 


The other nominees I’ve read, with ratings and links to reviews, are:

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

 

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

 

The rest of the longlist is:

  • Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – I might read this from the library.
  • The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig – I’d thought I’d give this one a miss, but I recently found a copy in a Little Free Library. My plan is to read it later in the year as part of a Patricia Highsmith kick, but I’ll move it up the stack if it makes the shortlist.
  • Because of You by Dawn French – Not a chance. Right? Please!
  • How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones – A DNF; I would only try it again from the library if it was shortlisted.
  • Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon – I might read this from the library.
  • Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – I will definitely read this from the library.
  • Summer by Ali Smith – I struggle with her work and haven’t enjoyed this series; I would only read this if it was shortlisted and my book club was assigned it!

 

My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
  4. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  5. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
  6. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

vs.

My predicted shortlist and reasoning:

  1. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – A dead cert. I’ve said so since I reviewed it in June 2020.
  2. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – Others don’t seem to fancy Doshi’s chances, and it’s true that she was already shortlisted for the Booker, but I feel like this could be more unifying a choice for the judges than, e.g. Clarke or Lockwood.
  3. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – Another definite.
  4. Luster by Raven Leilani – Not as strong as the Dolan, in my opinion, but it seems to have a lot of love from these judges (especially Vick Hope, who emphasized how perfectly it captured what it’s like to be young today), and from critics generally.
  5. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – Ordinarily I would have said the Prize is too staid to shortlist a trans author, but after all the online abuse that has been directed at Peters, I think the judges will want to make a stand in support of her legitimacy.
  6. Summer by Ali Smith – The most establishment author on the list, and not one I generally care for, but this would be a way of recognizing the four-part Seasons opus and her work in general. Of the middle-aged white cohort, she seems most likely.

I will happily accept some mixture of my wished-for and predicted titles, and would be surprised if any of the five books I have not mentioned is shortlisted. (Though quite a few others are predicting that Claire Fuller will advance; I’d have no problem with that.) I don’t think my book club would get a say in which of the six titles we’d be sent to read for the shadowing project, which is risky as I may have already read it and not want to reread, or it may be a surprise nominee that I don’t want to read, but I’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

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

Rachel also produced a priceless spreadsheet of all the Prize nominees by year, so you can tick off the ones you’ve read. I’m up to 150 now!

26 responses

  1. I’m much keener on Consent than you which I felt handled the theme well, extending it to matters other than sexual, so I’d be happy to see that one on the shortlist but suspect it won’t make it. Of the ones I’ve read, I’d also be happy to see Exciting times and Unsettled Ground but I think the former’s had its day. We’ll see!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed Consent, but somehow can’t see it advancing. It does feel like Exciting Times was nominated for loads of prizes last year, but perhaps she’ll get one more chance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I tried Transcendent Kingdom and abandoned it 30% of the way in. Absolutely not for me, on many levels.

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    1. Too bad! Will you seek out any others from the longlist?

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      1. Probably not, due to budgetary constraints, and our Library system is very slow in getting new books and appear to be oblivious to Long Lists of any Literary Prizes. Sigh.

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      2. I’m lucky that my library system buys the whole longlist of the Booker Prize and Women’s Prize, and usually the shortlists for the Costa, International Booker, Wainwright, etc. (I suppose they are UK-based prizes, so it makes sense.)

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  3. I want to read the Lockwood and Lyon. I have read the Dawn French (I ended up with a copy that was intended as a present, that never was) and it was enjoyable with a great mostly, but not always, predictable story. Some characters were underdone, but the dialogue was great. Not prize material though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a snob about books like that, I’m afraid; I wouldn’t read a Graham Norton, either. I imagine we’re guaranteed it won’t make the shortlist, anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read Graham Norton’s second one and did enjoy it quite a lot. Much better than you’d imagine.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought that consent in Consent wasn’t just about sex but about how far we can meaningfully consent to things if we are physically or emotionally disabled.

    Interesting to see that our shortlist wishlist is identical except for the Lyon/Lockwood swap!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *intellectually disabled, not sure where emotionally came from, though maybe it is about that too!

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    2. *Just reminding myself of your lists…* Ah yes, so we felt similarly about the ones we’ve both read, but we only chose half of the same ones for our predictions. This seems like a tough year to call. I didn’t want to just repeat what Eric et al. had said, but I may end up totally off-base as a result!

      And I’m sure you’re right: open up the term “consent” more widely and it can apply to both sisters’ situations, as in Sara’s research speciality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I said I was most certain about The Vanishing Half, Transcendent Kingdom and Luster though, and those are the three we cross over on 🙂 I’m annoyed I didn’t put Detransition, Baby now as well.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s so hard to predict whether the judges will want to make a stand re: Detransition, Baby…

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  5. I love to see all your 4 stars followed by a positive review. I’m sure you heard all the recent Goodreads hubbub about a writer who received 4 stars from a friend and called her out on it, ended the friendship, etc. 4 stars is “very good.” I too reserve 5 stars (on the rare occasion I rank anything over at Goodreads) for the few stellar books I read a year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe that was a different scandal from the Lauren Hough affair (all kinds of ridiculous!)? I must have missed it. Well, 4 stars is, as the site says, for “really liked it”. I’m stingy with 5-star ratings, only giving them out to, like you say, the very best books I read in a year. I’ve mostly gotten out of the habit of putting star ratings on my reviews of new releases, because people get hung up on the numbers, but I do rate everything on Goodreads and it would be easy for someone to go find the number value if they want to 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Nope, that’s what I was referring to, but I think I conflated that saga with another: the Lauren Hough affair, as it will forever be known!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And I’m Goodreads friends with the two reviewers who were involved! Hough made some smart-ass comments about getting 4-star reviews rather than 5 … not a great way to win over potential readers. It really backfired on her.

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  6. Ooh I meant to shoot you a message last night and ask how many you were up to. 150 is so impressive! I think I’m at 63.

    Totally agree Exciting Times is the much more interesting and successful book, but Luster is probably the one that will make the shortlist. Ah well. My shortlist prediction is similar to yours, I’ve got: Transcendent Kingdom, Piranesi, Luster, No One is Talking…, Detransition, and The Vanishing Half.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry for trying to screw up your spreadsheet!! I’ve had a few more reading years than you 😉 But still, I was surprised by how high my total was. (Though, alas, I have 21 DNFs besides the 150.) The “own” and “library” columns are really useful for keeping track of which nominees I have on my shelves still to read, and which ones I can borrow.

      I didn’t watch Eric and Anna’s video, but I saw that you sent them your predictions in advance. Did they end up agreeing with you? I would love to see No One Is Talking make it through, but I can’t decide if the sense of humour will be too divisive for the judges. I also go back and forth on whether I think Piranesi will win them over. All shall be revealed tomorrow! Perversely, I hope the results will allow me to scratch a few off my to-read list.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I forgive you 😂 Glad we got there in the end and I’m super happy that you like the columns!! If you have any other suggestions about its structure and functionality definitely let me know.

        Eric and Anna’s joint predictions were the same as mine with one difference (they picked the Fuller instead of the Lockwood) and Anna’s personal list was the EXACT same as mine! I think I’m going to try to speed through the Lockwood tonight so I can finally have an opinion on that, we’ll see how successful I am.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I loved the Lockwood, but I can see why it might not work as well for some if you don’t care for her humour or if you don’t like the turn the book takes halfway. It is certainly a quick read, anyway. (We’re lucky there was no Mantel-style doorstopper on the longlist this year!)

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  7. Well, 4 from my ideal list made it through, but I only correctly predicted 2! (The two definites.) I’ve read 5 of the 6 and I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about trying the Cherie Jones again…

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    1. buriedinprint | Reply

      Given that it’s kinda impossible to predict what a completely different set of readers will value, I’d say you did rather well.

      And you’ve made me want to take another run at counting up the Oranges. I knew we chatted about that last fall, but I’ve already forgotten how it ended up. As for this year, you are way ahead of me and that’s a trend likely to continue, as the only one I’m headed for anytime soon is Suzanna Clarke’s.

      Also…I didn’t know/had forgotten that you’re a huge Priestdaddy fan. Now I’m curious.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, but Laura T. correctly predicted 5 out of 6! 😉

        I think you’re probably ahead of me on Women’s Prize nominees. I have about 10 more on my shelves, and another 15 or so I can access via the library, so I’ll keep it going as a low-key project in the coming years.

        Enjoy Piranesi! I’m sure you will.

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  8. […] and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the […]

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