In this series of posts, we will be reviewing the books shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was announced on Monday 29 April.
Circe by Madeline Miller
In this retelling of Circe’s story, Miller takes us into the world of ancient Greece from a female viewpoint. Most commonly known as the enchantress who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and him into her lover, Circe comes to life in this gripping and well-told tale. She still turns men who displease her into pigs, but the story adds flesh to her bones and turns her from a female stereotype, into a goddess with a lot of earthly humanity.
Starting life in the court of her father, Helios the Sun God, Circe discovers that she can use flowers to transform people. When she innocently admits her magical powers to her father, he banishes her to the island of Aeaea. On her island, Circe lives in a house filled with everything she needs, surrounded by trees and beaches, alone except for the lions that live with her and the creatures of the woods. She is visited by several interesting characters such as Medea and Odysseus, which feels like having access to secret stories and conversations. The island is both a great freedom and a prison for Circe and we see her, over the few thousand years of the story, struggle with her fate and isolation, grow into her power, fall in love and watch those she has loved die.
There is a lot of debate about whether it is right to retrospectively empower ancient characters. Circe is three dimensional and flawed. She stays true to herself despite her isolation, and does not resort to the power games of the male dominated world of the gods, but she is also not afraid to use her power. She serves men graciously when it suits her but is not afraid to use her powers when it doesn’t.
This is an engrossing novel that is difficult to put down. A review says it should be read in one sitting. Quite long to be read all at once, but a great holiday read or for a time when you can dedicate a few hours at a time to it.
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Set in London in 2008 following the election of Barak Obama, two couples are in crisis. In an interview with the author on the Women’s Prize website, the author says that she wanted to write a story about how marriage effects both men and women and she does this very well, letting all the characters be both likeable and flawed. The novel covers a lot of ground including motherhood, modern relationships, race, identity, home, ancestral and historical ties, but does so with a deft hand, bringing all these layers together and weaving them around each other.
Through the novel, she takes us into the routine, day-to-day family life and transforms it with her colourful, rhythmic writing. She really takes time to tell the story, bringing small details to life, while keeping a steady ebb and flow to the pace of the melodic writing. Music features throughout, bringing us closer to the characters, who they are and what they are going through emotionally. The couples weave in and out of each other’s lives, physically and emotionally, and the past weaves into the present with memories of the early days of their relationships and references to parents, grandparents and distant countries of origin.
London features vividly throughout with many references to Chrystal Palace both now and historically, the 176 bus route lined with chicken shops, a wedding in Greenwich, shopping at Selfridges and bridges over the Thames. The city is brought to life, its colours, intensity, its moods and its history, and it looms large even though ultimately it is the backdrop to the slower, subtler journey of the characters. I found the book funny, engaging and incredibly moving and I enjoyed the feeling of being told a story, the music references and all the layers that Evans creates from the ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people.
Watch this space as the winner will be announced Wednesday 5 June.
Library Customer Service Officer, Brompton Library