Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on Wednesday 5 June; and well done to Tayari Jones’ with her book An American Marriage.

We’d already blogged about some of the titles on this year’s shortlist.

And here are our thoughts about the others, including this year’s winner.

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My Sister the Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite

Set in Nigeria and, as the title suggests, this novel is about two sisters, one a beautiful serial killer and the other a plain nurse who cleans up after her sister’s crimes.  This is not really a crime thriller, but a dark comedy.  The book is energetic and very funny.  It surprises and delights and has a young feel about it.  The younger sister, Ayoola, is at once a seductive beauty, a cold-blooded killer, a spoilt daughter and a young woman preoccupied with fashion and social media.  The older sister, Korede, is serious and dutiful by contrast, in love with a doctor she works with who inevitably falls for her Ayoola.  The sisters’ relationship is complex – competitive and antagonistic, but they are partners, each one suffering in their own way and both needing the other.  This book stayed with me and I loved its vibrant style.  It can seem a little like a soap opera, but what is done very well and what lingers after the story is finished, is the view of a society that perpetuates violence against women on many levels.  Like Circe and Ordinary People, it has a lot to say about what it means to be a woman and women’s complex relationships with each other.  This book stood out as highlighting important issues is a very clever, funny and new way.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Middle sister lives in a world where it is dangerous to be interesting, dangerous to have a name or to name others; a world where what is said or unsaid can have devastating consequences. Middle sister tries to keep to herself but when Milkman takes an interest in her the rumours begin to spread.

When I started this it felt like science fiction or dystopia but as I learned more about Middle Sister’s world I started to think perhaps this was closer to home than I thought. It cleverly exposes the absurdity of what we are willing to accept as normal. It has an unusual structure as it is written almost as a stream of consciousness and the story jumps around a lot chronologically. It is so original that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve read before. I think one of the most striking things is how current and of the moment it feels and so I was not surprised it won.

 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker 

‘The Silence of the Girls’ is the perfect title for Pat Barker’s reimagining of ‘The Iliad’ told through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is the cause of the infamous quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles and yet in Homer’s version, although we get to hear powerful speeches from both the men, Briseis remains silent. Pat Barker finally gives her a voice.

Despite being based on a myth, the story feels incredibly real as Pat Barker doesn’t shy aware from writing about the realities of war. The war camp is filled with the rats, disease and the constant threat of violence. Barker shows how Briseis and the other women become objects belonging to the men who yesterday killed their husbands and brothers.

Most of the book is told in the first person from Briseis’s viewpoint, but about half way through we also get chapters in the close third person, from Achilles perspective. Achilles character is beautifully portrayed in all his cruelty and violence, but he never becomes just a monster, he is always a real man with complex emotions. Despite this, I much preferred Briseis’s chapters and wonder if the book would lose anything if it was told only in her voice.

There has been a flurry of feminist retellings of myths recently but I think this is one of the best. It made me look at ‘The Iliad’ differently and it raises questions about who gets to tell our stories. At one point in the novel Briseis tries to run away from Achilles and chose her own fate, but she is unable to do so. She concludes that she can never escape the story that ultimately belongs to Achilles.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 

An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial. They are a young married couple planning their “American dream” future together when the unthinkable happens and Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. We watch as their plans for their lives unravel and we hear the story from the viewpoint of three different characters.

It is difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away, because there are a few surprise twists and turns that I didn’t expect. It deals with themes of loyalty, family, history, race and the American justice system. All three of the main characters are so realistically portrayed with all their dreams and faults that you are always invested in their stories, even if you don’t always find them likeable.

Although I felt some of the other books in the shortlist were more innovative, this is one of the most beautifully written. I love the way Tayari Jones weaves words together. I also found it very moving. For me the letters Roy and Celestial write to each other while he is in prison were the most powerful. Several chapters near the middle of the book are made up of just these letters and it is handled so skilfully that it’s all we need to move the story along.

Fiona and Phillipa, Brompton Library