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.
This left just four for me to read before voting for my all-time favorite in the web poll. I managed two as recent buddy reads but had to admit defeat on the others, giving them just the barest skim before sending them back to the library.
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (1999; 2001 prize)
(Buddy read with Laura T.; see her review here)
This is essentially an odd-couple romance, but so awkward I don’t think any of its scenes could accurately be described as a meet-cute. Harley Savage, a thrice-married middle-aged widow, works for the Applied Arts Museum in Sydney. The tall, blunt woman is in Karakarook, New South Wales to help the little town launch a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman is a divorced engineer tasked with tearing down a local wooden bridge and building a more suitable structure in its place. Their career trajectories are set to clash, but the novel focuses more on their personal lives. From the moment they literally bump into each other outside Douglas’ hotel, their every meeting is so embarrassing you have to blush – she saves him from some angry cows, while he tends to her after a bout of food poisoning.
Grenville does well to make the two initially unappealing characters sympathetic, primarily by giving flashes of backstory. Douglas is the posthumous child of a war hero, but has never felt he’s a proper (macho) Australian man. In fact, he has a crippling fear of heights, which is pretty inconvenient for someone who works on tall bridges. Harley, meanwhile, is haunted by the scene of her last husband’s suicide and is also recovering from a recent heart attack.
The title is, I think, meant to refer to how the protagonists fail to live up to ideals or gender stereotypes. However, it more obviously applies to the subplot about Felicity Porcelline, a stay-at-home mother who has always sought to be flawless – a perfect pregnancy, an ageless body (“Sometimes she thought she would rather be dead than old”), the perfect marriage – but gets enmired in a dalliance with the town butcher. I was never convinced Felicity’s storyline was necessary. Without it, the book might have been cut from 400 pages to 300.
Still, this was a pleasant narrative of second chances and life’s surprises. The small-town setting reminded Laura of Olive Kitteridge in particular, and I also thought frequently of Anne Tyler and her cheerfully useless males (“There was a lot to be said for being boring, and it was something [Douglas] was good at”). But I suspect the book won’t remain vivid in my memory, especially with its vague title that doesn’t suggest the contents. I enjoyed Grenville’s writing, though, so will try her again. In my mind she’s more known for historical fiction. I have a copy of The Secret River, so will see if she lives up to that reputation.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (2014)
(Buddy read with Marcie of Buried in Print.)
A book of two halves, one of which I thoroughly enjoyed; the other I struggled to engage with. I remembered vaguely as I was reading it that this was published in two different versions. As it happened, my library paperback opened with the contemporary storyline.
New Year’s Day marks the start of George’s first full year without her mother, a journalist who died at age 50. Her mother’s major project was “Subvert,” which used Internet pop-ups to have art to comment on politics and vice versa. George remembers conversations with her mother about the nature of history and art, and a trip to Italy. She’s now in therapy, and has a flirty relationship with Helena (“H”), a mixed-race school friend.
Smith’s typical wordplay comes through in the book’s banter, especially in George and H’s texts. George is a whip-smart grammar pedant. Her story was, all in all, a joy to read. There is even a hint of mystery here – is it possible that her mother was being monitored by MI5? When George skips school to gaze at her mother’s favorite Francesco del Cossa painting in the National Gallery, she thinks she sees Lisa Goliard, her mother’s intense acquaintance, who said she was a bookbinder but acted more like a spy…
The second half imagines a history for Francesco del Cossa, who rises from a brick-making family to become a respected portrait and fresco painter. The artist shares outward similarities with George, such as a dead mother and homoerotic leanings. There are numerous tiny connections, too, some of which I will have missed as my attention waned. The voice felt all wrong for the time period; I sensed that Smith wasn’t fully invested in the past, so I wasn’t either. (In dual-timeline novels, I pretty much always prefer the contemporary one and am impatient to get back to it; at least in books like Unsheltered and The Liar’s Dictionary there are alternate chapters to look forward to if the historical material gets tedious.)
An intriguing idea, a very promising first half, then a drift into pretension. Or was that my failure to observe and appreciate? Smith impishly mocks: “If you notice, it changes everything about the picture.” With her format and themes, she questions accepted binaries. There are interesting points about art, grief and gender, even without the clever links across time. But had the story opened with the other Part 1, I may never have gotten anywhere.
I made the mistake of leaving the three winners that daunted me the most stylistically – McBride, McInerney and Smith – for last. I eventually made it through the Smith, though the second half was quite the slog, but quickly realized these two were a lost cause for me.
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride: I’d glanced at the first few pages in a shop before and found the style immediately off-putting. When I committed to this #ReadingWomen project, I diligently requested a copy from the university library even though I seriously doubted I’d have the motivation to read it. It turns out my first impression was correct: I would have to be paid much more than I’ve ever been paid for writing about a book just to get through this one. From the first paragraph on, it’s deliberately impenetrable in a sub-Joycean way. Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic and one of my literary heroes/gurus, found the subject matter relentlessly depressing and the obfuscating style elitist. (Might it work as an audiobook? I can’t say; I’ve never listened to one.)
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Not as stylistically difficult as expected, though there is mild dialect and long passages in italics (one of my reading pet peeves). But I’m not drawn to gangster stories, and after a couple of chapters didn’t feel like pushing myself through the book. I did enjoy the setup of Maureen killing an intruder with a holy stone, eliciting this confession: “I crept up behind him and hit him in the head with a religious ornament. So first I suppose God would have to forgive me for killing one of his creatures and then he’d have to forgive me for defiling one of his keepsakes.” For Anna Burns and Donal Ryan fans, perhaps?
It’s been many years since I’ve read some of these novels, such that all I have to go on is my vague memories and Goodreads ratings, and there are a handful there towards the bottom that I couldn’t get through at all, but I still couldn’t resist having a go at ranking the 25 winners, from best to least. My completely* objective list:
(*not at all)
Larry’s Party by Carol Shields
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
The Road Home by Rose Tremain
When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
Property by Valerie Martin
Small World by Andrea Levy
Home by Marilynne Robinson
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
You can see the arbitrary nature of prizes at work here: some authors I love have won for books I don’t consider their best (Adichie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Patchett), while some exceptional female authors have been nominated but never won (Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler). Each year the judges are different, and there are no detailed criteria for choosing the winner, so it will only ever be the book that five people happen to like the best.
As she came out top of the heap with what is, coincidentally, the only one of the winning novels that I have managed to reread, my vote goes to Carol Shields for Larry’s Party. (People’s memory for prize winners is notoriously short, so I predict that one of the last two years’ winners, Tayari Jones or Maggie O’Farrell, will win the public’s best of the best vote.)
You have until midnight GMT on Sunday November 1st to vote for your favorite winner at this link. That’s less than a week away now, so get voting!
Note: If you’re interested in tracking your Women’s Prize reading over the years, check out Rachel’s extremely helpful list of all the nominees. It comes in spreadsheet form for you to download and fill out. I have read 138 nominees (out of 477) and DNFed another 19 so far.
Who gets your vote?
Next Wednesday the 22nd, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. However, the winner announcement has been delayed until September 9th, so we all get extra time to read the finalists (which is handy since the 900-page Hilary Mantel is a shoo-in). I happen to have gotten through half of the longlist so far. There were some books I cared for more than others. Of the remainder, I plan to pick up a few more once my library reopens.
Here’s how I’ve fared this year, in categories from best to worst, with excerpts and links to any I’ve reviewed in full:
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz: In 1965, 15-year-old Ana Canción, married off to an older man, leaves the Dominican Republic for New York City. With not a word of English, she feels trapped in her apartment and in this abusive relationship. Yet Ana is such a plucky and confiding narrator that you’re drawn into her world and cheer for her as she figures out what she wants from her life. This compassionate novel is proof that not all the immigration stories have been told yet.
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. The prose is more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. A warm, spirited book, it never turns strident. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner. To win the Women’s Prize too would be unprecedented, I think? But no surprise.
- Weather by Jenny Offill: Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? It’s a blunt, unromanticized but wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life. Set either side of Trump’s election, it amplifies many voices prophesying doom, from environmentalists to Bible-thumpers. Lizzie’s sardonic narration is an ideal way of capturing relatable feelings of anger and helplessness. Don’t expect to come away with your worries soothed, though there is some comfort to be found in the feeling that we’re all in this together.
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. When their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel: cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeek cigarette empire. Patchett always captures the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head.
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Like a family saga in miniature, this short novel stretches backward from Melody’s 16th birthday party, held in Brooklyn in 2001, to explore previous generations of the African American experience. Chapters alternate between first- and third-person narration, highlighting the perspectives of all the major family members. I raced through to see who would follow in family footsteps, or not. The title is apt: the book is sometimes raw and sometimes tender. It’s an emotionally engaging story of loss and memory.
Currently skimming (1)
- The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: I’ve stalled around page 200. I’ll be totally engrossed for a few pages of exposition and Cromwell one-liners, but then everything gets talky or plotty and I skim for 20‒30 pages and put it down. My constant moving between 10‒20 books and the sudden loss of a deadline have not served me well: I feel overwhelmed by the level of detail and the cast of characters, and haven’t built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch.
Did not particularly enjoy (3)
- Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst.
- Actress by Anne Enright: A slow-burning backstory of trauma and mental illness. I found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters and mostly skimmed this.
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: In comparison with other historical fiction, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief.
Attempted but couldn’t get through (1)
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – I’m wary of child narrators anyway, and the voice didn’t grab me within the first few pages.
Still plan to read (3)
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
- How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Not interested (3)
- Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: Sounds subpar.
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Say no to updated Greek classics.
- Girl by Edna O’Brien: I don’t care for O’Brien’s writing. Though this was well received by the critics, it’s not finding much love among my trusted bloggers. (Plus there’s the cultural appropriation issue.)
My ideal shortlist
(A wishlist based on my reading and what I want to read)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Weather by Jenny Offill
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
My predicted shortlist
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Actress by Anne Enright
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Girl by Edna O’Brien OR Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are also being encouraged to catch up on previous winners.
- I’ve read 13 so far (and am currently rereading On Beauty by Zadie Smith).
- I already had Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville on my shelves, plus The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on my Nook.
- I recently found a copy of A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne at the free bookshop where I volunteer.
- On my current library stack are When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.
I can’t promise to be a completist about this project because the prospect of reading A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and The Glorious Heresies fills me with dread, but we’ll see…
Other Prize Reading Projects
I’d been trying to make my way through some previous Wellcome Book Prize winners and nominees, but have been scuppered by my library’s closure. At the moment I have Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2017 longlist; passed on from my father-in-law) and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (2016 shortlist; from the library) on my pile to read or, more likely, skim.
I also had the idea to read all the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved The Leavers so much. (Known in full as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, it is a biennial award given by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that address issues of social justice.”) This project did not start particularly well as I DNFed Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. However, I own copies of Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow and hope I’ll have better luck with them.
What prize lists or other reading projects are keeping you busy?
The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.
Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.
One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).
The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.
Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.