Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 – reviews part 2

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced tomorrow, Wednesday 6 June. Back in April we reviewed some of the books that were on the longlist. So, ahead of tomorrow’s announcement, here are our thoughts on some of the other books that were on the longlist and three of the potential winners –

Elmet by Fiona Mozley 

I was really looking forward to reading this novel and I wasn’t disappointed.  From the beginning, Mozley draws you in with her writing and takes you into the world of Daniel, his sister Catherine and their father, Daddy, an enormous bare-knuckle fighter.  They build a house together on a hill in the woods of Elmet, the last independent Celtic kingdom, now known as West Riding.  The house is rough, bare and isolated from the outside world, both a hiding place and a vantage point.  It is warmed by open pit fires, cups of tea and homemade cider but also by the vulnerability and tenderness between the father and his children, particularly the Christmas scene.  There are historical scores to be settled, both personal and ancient, between the landowners and the people of the land and as the village comes together to fight for themselves, the outside world starts to intrude on the family’s home.  This is a dark and powerful novel that really stays with you.  It manages to be vivid, atmospheric and poetic while using very few, very well-chosen words.    I would definitely want to read whatever she writes next!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt 

Written in the days surrounding the murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, this novel is not trying to recreate a crime investigation or assert the reality of what happened during those tense few days.  Instead it creates a hyper-reality where we are told the story through the first person narratives of the Borden sisters, Lizzie and Emma, the household maid Bridget and a Benjamin, a stranger employed by Lizzie and Emma’s uncle to watch over them.   Each voice is as engaging as the other, with all narrators having a motive for murder.  The book is intense and well-paced and brings to life the silences and rages of an emotionally claustrophobic house and the games and manipulations at play under the surface of middle-class, southern formality.  Well written and very atmospheric and engaging.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar 

Set in the 1780s when Deptford will still a shipyard surrounded by fields and Marylebone was only just being built, we meet Angelica, an extravagant and temperamental courtesan and Jonah Hancock, a merchant and widower.  Their lives are brought together with Jonah comes into possession of a mermaid that becomes the talk of London.  This novel is beautifully written.  It brings to life the wit and debauchery of the time without overdoing it, not easy given the exaggerated nature of the time.  Hermes Gowar also uses touches of authentic turns of phrase and details of cakes, décor and fashions of the time that really bring the novel to life.  This vivid novel is both hugely entertaining while managing to also be moving at the same time.  At one point I wondered if Angelica would ever be more than a vain and rather empty woman, but as the novel moves on, so do the characters, while also keeping them true to the time they are set in.  The novel explores themes of loss and longing, of freedom and captivity.  We see how women’s lives at that time were ultimately as the property of men, rather like the mermaid, but this is a novel of hope rather than despair.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

‘The Idiot’ is a coming of age tale that explores the nature of language. It is the story of Selin, who is nineteen, in her first year at Harvard university, learning Russian, teaching English and falling in love with Ivan, a Hungarian mathematics student.

I thought it was well written with some unforgettable sentences. You wander through the plot with Selin, never really going anywhere but it is an enjoyable and thought provoking journey. My favourite part was Selin’s take on the story she has to read for her Russian class. Anyone who has studied a foreign language will relate to its humour, but it also makes you question the limits of language and it provides a wonderful insight into Selin’s character.

When I Hit You: Or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

This is the fictionalised version of the true story of Meena Kandasamy’s abusive marriage. It is unflinching and in parts an emotionally difficult read.

I was expecting it to be moving because of the subject matter, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so fantastically written. At the beginning we hear how others are telling the story of her marriage and by the end you feel like she has reclaimed her story for herself. She has even re-appropriated her abusive ex-husband’s words for the title of the book, giving herself back the power over them.

Sing, Unburied, Sing  by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of one Mississippi family, narrated by three main characters. Jojo is thirteen and finding his way in the world while trying to deal with his neglectful mother and his baby sister. Leonie, his mother, is struggling with a drug addiction and the ghosts of her past. Richie is the most ambiguous character out of the three and he introduces the element of magical realism into the novel.

I thought the family dynamic was portrayed very well, in all its difficulties and complexities.  It deals with the history of race relations in America and I found the stories of Parchman Prison particularly harrowing. It is a novel about histories, stories, memories and ghosts. Due to the rural setting, the novel feels timeless and there is a sense that the past is never that far away.

Fiona and Philippa, Brompton Library

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