Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist 2018 #WomensPrize

Today the short list was announced for the woman’s prize for fiction. From the longlist of 13 books, six books have been chosen.

The Chair of Judges Sarah Sands had this to say:

“The shortlist was chosen without fear or favour. We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges. The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers.”

I’ve actually read and reviewed three of the six chosen titles, all of which I really enjoyed, and I would like to read Sight and The Mermaid, so overall I think it’s an impressive list, even though the prize completely ignored the outstanding novel Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

The shortlist is as follows, beginning with the three I’ve read, then the two I’d like to, all six revealed here in biscuit form, made by @BiscuiteersLtd :

Meena KandasamyWhen I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife  – my review here

  • a literary artwork, a portrait of a writer suffering in a four-month marriage, surviving through writing, her imagination and now looking back and turning what could have destroyed her into a blazing, unforgettable novel.

Kamila ShamsieHome Fire my review here

  • a heartbreaking tragic work, a modern retelling of Sophocles’ 5th century BC play Antigone, an exploration of the conflict between those who affirm the individual’s human rights and those who protect the state’s security, set in London, told through an immigrant family struggling to distance themselves from the patterns of their ancestral past.

Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing – my review here

  • narrated from three points of view, 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie and the spectre of a young man Richie, it’s a coming-of-age story about surviving a dysfunctional family, haunted by the past, and spirits that won’t rest.

Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

  • Historical fiction with a splash of magic realism, a merchant and a celebrity courtesan brought together by the arrival of a mermaid in Georgian London, 1785 – a debut novel inspired by a “real mermaid” in the British Museum.

 

Jessie GreengrassSight

  • a woman recounts her progress to motherhood, remembering the death of her mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother – alongside events in medical history – emerging into a realisation. 

Elif BatumanThe Idiot

  • a campus novel, reflecting on how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is.

 

***

Of the three I’ve read, I think Meena Kandasamy’s stood out the most for me, in particular because I initially avoided it, and then was blown away by how the subject was so uniquely and adeptly handled. It’s a form of autobiographical fiction, some debating whether it is indeed a novel, being based in part on the author’s life.

So what do you think of the list, do you have a favourite, or one you really want to read?

Buy any of the books on the shortlist via Bookdepository

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

I began seeing reviews about When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife late in 2017,  most were stunned by this novel, obviously by the subject, a woman writing about the experience of domestic violence and abuse, herself a victim of it within marriage; but also the analysis of her response to what was happening. This was a highly educated, intelligent and articulate young woman writing. It nudged preconceived ideas about victims of domestic abuse.

The reviews made me wish to read it, but the subject prevented me from picking it up sooner.  And then it made the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. I relented.

While it genuinely deserves to be on the list for its literary uniqueness and merit, it’s also relevant given we are in an era where the silencing, harassment and abuse of women is reaching a tipping point, in the West at least. The author now lives in London, however this story takes place in contemporary India, where she grew up.

The statistics on domestic violence in India are appalling, violence by husbands against wives is widespread, nearly two in five* (37 %) married women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband, and while the statistics vary according to the number of years of education men or women have acquired, 12%  of married women with 12 or more years of education have experienced spousal violence, compared with 21 percent of married women whose husbands have 12 or more years of education.

This is one aspect that surprises some Western readers, that highly educated women, married to highly educated men (the husband in this book is a university professor) while less likely to suffer, are not immune. No one is.

The title is a reference to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man his debut novel about a young man growing up, (essentially, his alter-ego). In the same way we see the character of this novel traverse the early months of a new marriage, as a young wife.

Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy has created an artwork, carefully sculpted, observed and understood from different angles, a work that endures over four months, like acts in a play, before the master stroke, a line she drew, that when her husband crossed, would signal to her the moment to leave. It is written by an unnamed narrator in a first person voice that moves from reflective to urgent, from a place of detached distance to a disturbing sense of present danger.

The novel begins in the period after she has escaped her marriage, in recounting the things her mother says to people, it is five years since her daughter left the marriage and the story has mutated and transformed into something the mother can more easily digest as she narrates.

So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is , in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.

When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet.

The way the story begins, hearing her mother’s voice with hindsight, introduces the subject with a dose of irony. It is a lead up to the author introducing herself as the writer that she is, and sharing the lessons she has acquired through this writing project.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

She continues with narrating the story, and seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The husband, a Marxist who considered himself a revolutionary, a comrade, using communist intellectual ideas and his activities to elevate his self aggrandisement, detests the idea of his wife’s being a writer, an attitude that pushes her to want to antagonise him. The more he wishes to silence her, the stronger is her will to write, to imagine, to create, to express herself.

Being a writer is now a matter of self-respect. It is the job title that I give myself…

But it’s not just about antagonizing him. There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description: defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

Given how prevalent it is, it is a brave and courageous feat for the author to have penned this work and for it to be recognised and appreciated in this way, deservedly so. In an interview with The Wire, (linked below) Meena Kandasamy said:

“I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace.”

It is an incredible work of creativity, working through the post-trauma of domestic violence.

Meena Kandasamy has taken charge of her story, she retells it in exactly the form(s) that she desires, and I am sure she will move on and create more great works of art, in literary form.

This is not a work to shy away from, especially not now, in these times where women are being supported when they choose to express these narratives, in order to move on from the trauma, because no one wants these stories to define their lives or to be who they are. Healing might come slowly, but I hope it does indeed come, that people like Meena Kandasamy can share their version of resilience and acts of moving forward and on, for the sake of themselves and others like them, albeit never forgetting.

I finish with one more of the many quotes I highlighted from reading:

I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.

I have put myself in a dangerous situation with this marriage, but even in this complicated position, I’m finding plot points. This is the occupational hazard of being a writer-wife.

Further Reading:

Interview: Meena Kandasamy on Writing About Marital Violence

* Statistics on Domestic Violence in India

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Elsie is Florence’s (Flo) best friend. The book is all about Flo and begins with her lying on the floor having had a fall, she’s waiting for someone to arrive, she lives in a self-contained apartment within a retirement village. She imagines who might come first, what they might say, the ambulance ride to the hospital.

Every few chapters are interspersed with a chapter that is labelled with the time, the first chapter is 4.48pm and the last chapter is 11.12pm. The chapters in between narrate the story of both the present and the past, about her time at Cherry Tree with Jack and Elsie, about staff members Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, a few outings they take together, both the trio of Jack, Elsie and Flo and a group outing for a couple of days to Whitby.

I looked across the lounge, and into the past. It was more useful than the present. There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary. Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time, out of politeness.

Flo has plenty of complaints about what she is expected to participate in at Cherry Tree, but she’s also worried about being sent to Greenbank, she feels as though she’s under probation. Her observations about the names of these places and the names of many things, is insightful and adds a lightness to the narrative.

Another problem with Cherry Tree is there are no cherry trees. I’ve had this out with Miss Bissell on more than one occasion, but she won’t be told. ‘One of them must be,’ is all she can come up with, but none of them is. It’s the kind of name you give to these places though. Woodlands, Oak Court, Pine Lodge. They’re often named after trees for some reason. It’s the same with mental health units. Forests full of forgotten people, waiting to be found again…
It’s like the day room. It’s isn’t a day room, it’s an All The Bloody Time Room. Everybody will be in there now and it isn’t daytime.

And then there is the new resident who looks uncannily familiar to Flo, and makes her fearful and paranoid about events that occurred back in the 1950’s, only no one seems to be taking her seriously about her concerns, so she Jack and Elsie decide to take matters into their own hands.

Memory is like a character in the book, it’s is something that is sometimes there in abundance, stretching far back into the past and at other times, beyond reach.

‘You need to think about things for longer before you give up, Florence.
I didn’t answer, and we were stuck in a wordless argument for a while.
‘Do you remember taking sandwiches on holiday, when we were children? she said eventually. ‘Do you remember going to Whitby?’
I said I remembered but I wasn’t sure. She could tell straight away, because nothing much gets past Elsie.
‘Think, Florence,’ she said. ‘Think.’
I tried. Sometimes, you feel a memory before you see it. Even though your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.
‘Ham and tomato’ I said. ‘With boiled eggs!’

Three Things About Elsie is a delightful read, a book written with tremendous empathy and compassion by a writer who has been close to the elderly and listened, and seen them for who they are and have always been, that the bodily exterior and instances of confusion aren’t what defines them.

She portrays these characters with integrity and humour, I had the feeling often as I read that I was watching these scenes happen, so vividly are they drawn, so clear the voices and intentions of the characters. She creates a mystery that intrigues the reader, making me not want to put the book down, desperate to know what was going to happen next and always with that air of doubt, about what is real and what might be the confusion of an elderly woman. But never mind that, for as we read, we are right there with Flo, Jack and Elsie, moving on from one clue to the next, following them in their devilish escapades and hoping that all will be well in the end.

I’m not surprised this book is being adored and appreciated by so many readers, Joanna Cannon captures the soul of Flo and we recognise the vulnerability of ageing and only been seen for the deteriorating body and mind that isn’t who we are at all.

Three Things About Elsie has been long listed for the Women’s Prize For Fiction 2018. Click on the link to read about the 16 novels nominated.

Click Here to Buy Three Things About Elsie via BookDepository