Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018: winner

Fiona and Philippa at Brompton Library have been reviewing some of the books long and shortlisted for this  year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The winner was announced on Wednesday, and Fiona is back with her thoughts –

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 has been announced and I personally wasn’t surprised.  Although I haven’t read all of the shortlisted books, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie really stood out as a powerful and relevant novel.  Here is the review I did a couple of weeks ago before the result was announced –

 

A retelling of Antigone, a Greek tragedy about a girl in love with the son of a politician who will not allow the body of her dead brother be buried in Greece.  This was not one of my first choices and it took me a while to really get into the story.

Told from the viewpoint of each of the characters, the book starts with older sister Isma leaving London following the death of her mother and the disappearance of her brother, to study in the States.  Here she meets Eamonn, the son of a controversial British Muslim politician whose past is related to her father’s.  The story then comes back to London, as Eamonn returns to his family home and introduces himself to Isma’s sister and aunt in Wembley.

The book is written in simple and direct prose.  As the story develops and comes to its peak, this simple style makes the tragedy at the heart of the story all the more powerful.  Shamsie takes us on a journey from the beginning with its sense of distance, detachment and secrecy, into the quiet world of a young and vulnerable man whose own losses lead him away from his family and into compelling world of extremism and finally to the heart-breaking end, played out on the world stage.

This is a story about truth, extremism at both ends of the spectrum, family duty versus moral duty, cultural identity vs personal identity but most importantly it’s a story about love and loss. This was not one of my first choices to read but I am so glad I did and am guessing it will be in with a very good chance of winning the prize as all the books I have read have been very good, but this one stands out.  It is a powerful novel, deeply moving and thought provoking, using an ancient story to highlight such a modern issue in an intimate and personal way.

Fiona, Brompton Library

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

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 – reviews

Now well into its second decade, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is firmly established, is respected throughout the world and has made a major impact on the literary landscape in the UK and beyond.  Here are some reviews of books that have been longlisted this year –

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine 

By Gail Honeyman 

Eleanor Oliphant lives a quiet, isolated life and sticks to her routine. She eats the same things, wears the same clothes and keeps to herself. Then one day she helps a stranger and her world opens up. As she learns there is a lot more to life, we learn there is a lot more to Eleanor Oliphant.

Despite its sad subject matter, this was an entertaining and sometimes hilarious read.  Eleanor is a perfect character: you laugh with her, you despair at her and you route for her the whole way.

Three Things About Elsie 

By Joanna Cannon 

Florence is eighty-six and living in Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. She is trying to behave herself and not forget so many things, helped all the time by her best friend Elsie. We learn two important things about Elsie quickly but it’s the third thing about her that makes this novel exceptional.

You can tell Joanna Cannon has a background in psychiatry as we really get to see inside the minds of the characters and she has some great insights on human nature.

H(a)ppy 

By Nicola Barker 

Mina A is H(a)ppy. Her and the rest of The Young live in a world without pain, want, fear or death. They all strive to remain in balance and avoid an excess of emotion. But when Mina A starts writing her own narrative, she struggles to maintain her feelings.

This was unlike anything I’d ever read before. The story argues with itself, desperately trying not to be told. It has a unique and unpredictable layout, where every page is a surprise.

The shortlist is due to be announced tomorrow, Monday 23 April.

 Philippa, Brompton Library