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


Book Award round up

Sally Connew-Volpe, Triborough Stock Librarian, writes:

The Miniaturist by Jessie BurtonHave you seen our Book Awards page?

We’ve gathered all the contenders and winners of the UK’s most popular literary awards in one place! So if you’re keen to read a whole shortlist, want to know what all the fuss is about a particular winner, or are just looking for a great book to read – take a look. All our book lists link straight in to the library catalogue, so you can find out which libraries hold copies of the book you’re after and whether they’re available (you can reserve from here too).

The book awards we feature include the Man Booker, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Specsavers National Book Award and many more!

Book Awards page - part of the RBKC library catalogue
Book Awards page – part of the RBKC library catalogue

Why not try The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (above) – winner of the 2014 Waterstones Book of the Year, winner of Book of the Year and Best New Writer in the 2014 Specsavers National Book Awards. This is a wonderful read set in 1686 Amsterdam. It follows eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman as she arrives from a small village to the Amsterdam household of merchant trader Johannes Brand, her new husband. A gripping story unfolds as she is given a cabinet by her husband containing an exact replica of their house.

The Paying Guests by Sarah WatersTake a look too through the excellent shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, including the latest book by Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests. The winner will be announced in just a couple of weeks!

Each time a new shortlist is announced, the lists are refreshed – but we are gradually building a ’round up’ list of past prizewinners, so you can always be sure to find some great quality reading.

Borrow one today!


Man Booker Prize – reading challenge update

Katie Collis, Senior Customer Services Assistant at Brompton Library sets herself an annual reading challenge – to read all six titles on the Man Booker shortlist.  The winner will be announced on Tuesday 15 October 2013.

Man Booker Prize 2013
Man Booker Prize 2013

Katie first updated us this year in last month’s Brompton Blog post and here’s her latest update….

I’m m already well into my Booker books, although still four more to go and we are already into October!

I tackled the lightest volume of the short-listed six, which was:

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Set entirely from the point of Mary, mother of Jesus, it starts with a stream of conscious thought that meticulously melds into a story. It charts the series of events leading up to the crucifixion and Mary’s fate afterwards. At 103 pages it is pared down language. Mary’s human acceptance of her son’s death and her own lot transcends humanity – indeed her view of the world of men is very critical and although she loves her son she mistrusts his preaching and work. I must have read this in less than a day, but like most powerful books it makes you think for much longer, it is a terribly moving piece of work. As with Usula Le Guin’s Lavinia, Toibin breathes some life into the story of a woman who we don’t know an awful lot about and who we all would want to.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Set in a shanty-town called Paradise in Zimbabwe, it follows 12 year old Darling as she and her group of young cohorts steal guavas from nearby ‘Budapest’ and lives with her grandmother ‘Mother of Bones’ and attends church. She is then whisked off to Michigan to live with her aunt and her family and experiences a new live which is overwhelmingly different from her native ‘Zim’.

This to me is like a cross between The Sisters Brothers (Patrick Dewitt) and Pigeon English (Stephen Kelman), hilarious and awful in parts, very moving but bleak. It is a very easy book to read and zips by, the only aspect of it which was not convincing was Darling’s transition to the States, the flow of her wonderful language became more stilted and unimpressive. Still, Bulawayo is a gifted writer and her tributes to Achebe (the father of African literature) was affecting, especially in relation to Zimbabwe’s troubles and what might have been Darling’s life there.

Harvest by Jim Crace

Harvest by Jim Crace
Harvest by Jim Crace

Set in a post Middle-Ages but pre-Industrial village (all very Lark Rise to Candleford) it is about a group of labourers who are working on the land for themselves and for the lord of the manor. All of a sudden three strangers turn up and erect a makeshift shelter for themselves with the idea that they will stay. The villagers xenophobic feelings are unleashed and before long ‘Mistress Pandemonium and Master Chaos rule’.

It is very slow burner of a book, and you can see that something cataclysmic is going to happen. The writing is particularly beautiful and the main character is a lovely guy and an effective narrator. I just found it very boring in places and not really that believable. I would expect something of the calibre of his writing to be short-listed for the Man Booker and it focussed on lots of important issues but personally I had to force myself to read it!

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

It is post World War Two and two brothers negotiate round the high walls of the colonial country house on the outskirts of Calcutta, looking for golf balls and adventure. Naturally curious and bright, they excel in their studies but their path leads them in various directions. It is the younger brother who is fired with passion about his country’s future and wants to fight what he believes is an oppressive state. The older brother wants a quieter life where he can pursue his academic studies; this eventually takes him to the United States. However a series of events causes their lives and their loved ones to change.

I cannot really give more away of the story. I read this book in just one sitting – it is a brilliant piece of work. It is beautifully narrated, the characters are believable (I adored the older brother) and it is extremely moving. It is an example that if one is a slave to a cause or a movement then that person neglects those around them, with terrible consequences that can last generations. Out of the four books that I have read this is my favourite and I think Lahiri is every bit of a powerful story-teller as Andrea Levy.

So two more books to read – and with under a week to go it’s going to be a tight race!

Katie Collis
Katie Collis Katie Collis

Katie Collis

Senior Customer Services Assistant, Brompton Library

Booker Prize update

The 5th and penultimate book that I tackled on the Booker List was Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home. This is the shortest read out of all six, a mere 140 pages.

Swimming Home
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Set in the south of France, two couples who are renting a villa discover one morning a young woman in their swimming pool. This stranger is soon infiltrating their lives and testing everyone’s emotions. Who is this girl and what is she doing here?

In my opinion, the only good thing about this book was that it was mercifully short. I really do question why this book was even long-listed. I think that this author was trying to write like Salinger and create this real one-off character (the main protagonist), somebody that is volatile, vulnerable yet calculating. But I don’t feel this works; in fact it felt like the book was sucking the energy out of me! It is only my opinion at the end of the day and I do hope that other readers get something out of it.

Sadly I could not get to read all six books by tonight’s announcement! Am halfway through Wolf Hall (very good), but most people have been very effusive about Hilary Mantel’s follow up, Bring up the Bodies. The front cover is very captivating.

I was dreading this year’s crop but actually I am very glad that I have read them. I got to hang out in a Bombay opium den, excavated a pond in Malaysia, stood on a ferry gazing at the Hook of Holland and watched a woman in North London awaken after 50 years.

The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse

My personal favourite is The Lighthouse by Alison Moore – her characters are still stuck inside my head. However I do think that panel will opt for one of the Bookies favourites: Bring up the Bodies (Mantel) or Umbrella (Self).

Katie Collis
Katie Collis

Katie Collis

The Man Booker Prize Shortlist Reading Challenge!

Post by Katie Collis

Katie Collis
Katie Collis

This is my third year of reading the short-listed six books and one which has to be met with tons of enthusiasm and an open mind. I have really enjoyed the last two years of doing this but was rather gloomy to hear that this year’s judges would be concentrating more on ‘prose’ and less about ‘readability. The deadline is Tuesday 16 October, when they will be announcing the winner.

As already mentioned on previous posts, the shortlisted books are:

  • Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
  • Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories/Faber & Faber)
  • Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)
  • Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)
  • Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
  • Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

I am already feeling that this is a mighty struggle as I have not read the precursor to Bring up the Bodies, which is Wolf Hall and that also took the Booker Prize back in 2009. So that makes it 7 books to read!

The biggest task, I felt, was to try and tackle Will Self’s Umbrella. Why? At around 380 pages, it has no paragraphs and no chapters. I was assured that the reader would get something profound from it. 2 pages in and I felt it was a turgid piece of writing, too many italics, repeating words and I grumpily envisaged making a note of every page that I felt needed paragraphs and sending it to him, whilst being very impolite in the process.

Umbrella by Will Self

By page 7, the Eureka moment hit and I was being sucked into this vortex of the two main characters and into their timelines, and worlds. A psychiatrist (Busner) is reviewing his patient’s life (Audrey Dearth) who was admitted to Friern Hospital in 1910 and has been ‘inside’ for many decades. It also follows the fortunes of Audrey’s two brothers.

This was a challenging novel, you felt you were cycling up a steep hill, but when you got to the top it was all worth it. For a book that is entirely unsentimental, it does elicit some strong emotions from the reader. Yes, it feels blurry, nearly all the time, but the language and the imagination of the book will be difficult to beat by any writer this year.

Next book: Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil)