For the first time, I’ve read (almost) all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist. Almost because I haven’t read Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light. The reason for this is purely because I have the other two parts of the trilogy in paperback, so I’ll be buying and reading part three next year (I assume, there’s no listing for it at the moment) when I might also treat you to my rant about publishers who change cover designs during the publication of a series.
As for Mantel’s potential third successive Booker win, which dominated initial coverage of the longlist, I’m all for it. I think amongst Mantel’s recent success, it’s been forgotten that Mantel is (1) a womxn, (2) from a working-class background, who (3) wrote nine novels, a short story collection and a memoir, all of which are excellent and were largely ignored by the big prizes until she (4) wrote a big, historical fiction novel about a man in Tudor England. If it was a male writer up for a historic third win, I wouldn’t have to spell out why he was worthy. Anyway, having read all the other novels by womxn on the longlist, I don’t think Mantel’s got in the bag at all; there are some superb books here.
What’s interesting about the longlist are the number of novels which tell stories that have been hidden or remained unpublished. Not only the historical fiction of The Shadow King and How Much of These Hills Is Gold but also Burnt Sugar and its mother/daughter relationship, and Such a Fun Age with its young, Black female protagonist who just wants to live her life. There’s also significant consideration of how societies are organised and how we choose (or are forced) to live. Plenty of calls for urgent change here.
It’s the first time I’ve felt compelled to read of all the books by womxn on the Booker Prize longlist and it was a joy. This year has highlighted a list of gems, all of which are very much worth reading.
The New Wilderness – Diane Cook (Oneworld)
Somewhere in the not too distant future, Bea’s daughter Agnes is ill. When a doctor suggests that moving out of the smog-ridden, overcrowded, filthy city might be the answer, Bea allows her husband Glen’s dream to come true. Glen wants to be part of a study that involves living in the Wilderness, a refuge for wildlife. Twenty people are placed in the last wilderness area left, given a Manual on how to behave, and allowed semi-regular contact with the Rangers, including distribution of mail from friends and family.
The novel begins at a point where the Community have already spent several years living in this terrain. Although they claim to do everything by consensus, leaders have emerged, relationships have strengthened and strained, and some of their number are dead. The Rangers tell them they’ve camped too long at one particular spot and send them on a route they’ve never crossed before.
The world Cook creates in The New Wilderness is a microcosm of society. There’s a clear hierarchy from the Administration to the Private Lands (which may or may not exist) to the Rangers to the Community to those living in the city. The rules might be bullshit and are a contradiction to living life in what’s supposed to be a wilderness, highlighting that all rules are created by societies to keep people in their places. There’s also some fetishisation of consumer goods that the Community are supposed to have relinquished.
Alongside this, Cook uses the relationship between Bea and Agnes to look at mothers and daughters. As Agnes grows in age and confidence, their relationship becomes more complex and more challenging. Bea doesn’t agree that she’d do anything for her daughter – moving to the Wilderness has pretty much cost Bea her relationship with her own mother – and isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing anymore.
There’s a good narrative pace to the book and enough intrigue to propel the reader through it, as well as some interesting characters and set pieces. A good debut.
This Mournable Body – Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber)
The question of who can, and who cannot, who does and who does not succeed, returns to echo ominously, bringing bitterness back into your soul.
Tambudzai’s life is not going well. In her 30s, she’s unemployed and living in a hostel. The woman who runs the hostel wants to throw Tambudzai out for being too old, concerned she’ll lose her license. Tambu finds a room in a big house run by a widow, which is deteriorating, and plans to marry one of the widow’s sons. Eventually she’s offered a job as a project manager that comes with accommodation, working for Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris, a start-up dealing in environmentally friendly entrepreneurship solutions.
What connects each of these moments in Tambu’s life are the structural issues which consistently prevent her from progressing, despite having been educated at a white school, gaining a university degree and doing what she sees as playing by the rules, even when it means ignoring others in danger. There’s a horrific scene near the start of the novel where Tambu watches her hostelmate Gertrude as she’s attacked and has her skirt ripped off.
‘Tambu,’ she whispers, singling you out.
Her mouth is a pit. She is pulling you in. You do not want her to entomb you.
This isn’t the only moment of violence against women; there are several, both physical and emotional.
The novel’s set during the time that Mugabe was redistributing farming lands controlled by whites to landless Black Zimbabweans. The white people in the novel are mostly represented by Tracey Stephenson, who was Tambu’s rival at school and later her boss at an advertising agency – where the white workers claimed Tambu’s work as their own – and then at Green Jacaranda, which Tracey runs. It doesn’t matter what Tambu does or where she goes, she can’t escape Tracey and will never rise above her. Tracey complains about her own disempowerment while constantly working to ensure that Tambu is kept in her place.
Dangarembga writes the novel in second person. This serves to distance Tambudzai from herself and her decisions; she can’t face what she’s doing in order to try and create a better life for herself – she’s educated, it shouldn’t be this hard and, of course, it wouldn’t be if she wasn’t a Black woman. It also makes the reader complicit, which is interesting, and I suspect will work differently on each reader depending on their race, gender and class. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience, which is entirely the point.
On a sentence level too, the writing is superb. The book begins There is a fish in the mirror. It’s metaphorical, a representation of Tambu’s face at that point, but it serves to disorientate us and to introduce a number of animal metaphors, including frequent use of snakes, to show Tambu’s emotional and physical state.
This Mournable Body is the final book in a trilogy that began with Nervous Conditions. I haven’t read the earlier books and, while I’m sure I’ve missed things I’m unaware of, that didn’t affect my reading of this novel. I could easily write an essay on the issues Dangarembga considers in this book alone. If I was awarding this year’s prize, this would be my winner. This Mournable Body is a masterpiece.
Burnt Sugar – Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton)
There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling.
Antara’s mother, Tara, has dementia; she wanders around at night, asks Antara to phone people who are dead, and eventually doesn’t recognise Antara at all. They have a complex, antagonist relationship. When Antara was small, her mother left her husband, Antara’s father, because she felt stifled in his parents’ home, and joined an ashram. Run by a guru who promoted free love and took some of the women as his lovers before casting them off, Antara was neglected by her mother, instead becoming close to a woman called Kali Mata. Now, Antara seems to want a conventional life; she’s married and has discussed the possibility of children with her husband. However, she works as an artist; her most recent project being one in which she copied the face of a man over and over again.
The damage Antara’s mother rendered has left Antara in a position where she both loves and hates her mother. She wants to take care of her as she deteriorates, while also wanting to hurt her. It’s deliberately unclear whether some of Antara’s actions are because she wants the thing she is pursuing or because she knows it will hurt her mother; perhaps that she’s her mother’s daughter makes any distinction impossible.
The epigraph to the book is a quotation from Lidia Yuknavitch’s superb memoir The Chronology of Water. Yuknavitch is one my favourite writers so I figured I was in for a treat as soon as I opened Burnt Sugar and I was right. Doshi’s depiction of Tara and Antara’s relationship shows how complex, interdependent and toxic the mother/daughter dynamic can be. There are few good portrayals of this type of motherhood in literature; it’s refreshing to see another excellent one.
The Shadow King – Maaza Mengiste (Canongate)
These aren’t the days to pretend you’re only a wife or a sister or a mother, she says. We’re more than this.
Set during the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, The Shadow King, tells the story of Hirut, a servant working for the landowner and soldier, Kidane, and his wife Aster. Kidane took Hirut in when her parents died and his interest in her provokes jealousy from Aster, who is grieving the death of their child. Beginning in a claustrophobic domestic setting, the scope of the novel widens when the Italians invade Ethiopia. It’s clear early on that neither Hirut nor Aster will be content with supporting the men as they wage war; Hirut is furious when Kidane takes the gun her father gave her and donates it to the cause, and – in a superb set piece – as Empress Menen gives a speech calling on women to ‘express their solidarity’ against acts of war, Aster dresses in her father-in-law’s uniform; A woman dressed as a warrier, looking as fierce as any man.
The narrative roves between a number of other characters including Ettore Navarra, a Jewish-Italian photographer; Ferres, a highly educated, expensive sex-worker and spy; Carlo Fucelli, leader of the Italian invasion, and Haile Selassie, initially in Addis Ababa and then in exile in Bath, England. There is also a chorus which comments and advises. Their appearance works alongside increasing references to Greek mythology, as the behaviour of some of the characters echoes those from the epic journeys. This movement is skilfully done, creating an engaging picture of the various battles – physical and psychological – that take place.
The novel’s title refers to an incident at the centre of the book where Hirut recognises the similarity between a peasant musician called Minim (‘nothing’) and Haile Selassie. In order to motivate and encourage the soldiers, Aster and Hirut dress Minim and train him to act like the emperor. Hirut becomes his guard. This isn’t the only shadow over the story though; many of the characters act in particular ways due to stories, advice and traits that have been passed down to them. Mengiste shows how ideas of masculinity and femininity are moulded in this way and the damage these gender constructs wield. She also considers how Ettore’s family have been forced to create a narrative and a different life due to anti-semitism and the impact this has on him when he’s seen as other in all the contexts he’s placed in.
Huge in scope and ambition, The Shadow King is an absorbing narrative through which Mengiste writes back into history the presence of female soldiers (including her own great-grandmother) in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war. A triumph.
Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury)
Emira, a young Black woman, is months away from her 26th birthday and the loss of parental health insurance cover. She works two part-time jobs as a typist for The Green Party and as a babysitter for a wealthy white couple. She’s at a friend’s birthday party when the couple call her for emergency cover while the police deal with an incident at their house. Emira takes two-year-old Briar to Market Depot to distract her. A middle-aged white woman tells the security guard there’s something suspicious about Emira, out late at night dressed for a party holding a white child, and the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar. The incident is filmed by a white man who later agrees to delete the video after emailing a copy to Emira.
What unfolds is a story of white people attempting to out-woke each other while ignoring the wishes of the young Black woman they think they’re trying to protect. Emira’s boss Alix wants to befriend Emira and make her part of the family, while the man Emira dates – Kelley Copeland, who is also the man who filmed the video – seems to fetishise Black people. However, this is as much a tale of class as it is race; Emira is the first in her family to gain a degree, but at 25 she doesn’t earn enough to have benefits included in her work package. In various ways, Emira’s friends, Alix, Alix’s friends and Kelley all attempt to push Emira into doing something more with her life, while Emira can’t imagine leaving a job in which she cares for the little girl she loves.
This is a smart, compelling and smoothly written novel. The sections where Reid interweaves conversations characters are having with the interruptions of a small child are deftly handled. Alix and Kelley are recognisable and, by the end of the novel, decisively skewered by their own behaviour, while Emira, the character everyone else seems to think is lost, shows that it’s possible to be content without grand ambition.
Redhead by the Side of the Road – Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)
44-year-old Micah Mortimer has a steady life. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone. He works as a superintendent at the building he lives in and runs his own tech company, mainly sorting out the computer woes of elderly women. He has a girlfriend – Cass, a teacher – who he sees several nights a week.
Two things happen to disrupt Micah’s quiet existence: Cass thinks she’s going to be thrown out of her apartment and when Micah doesn’t suggest she move in with him, Cass is annoyed, and Brink, the son of Micah’s first girlfriend shows up unexpectedly, thinking that Micah might be his dad.
Like many of Tyler’s novels, this could be described as a quiet book. While nothing much appears to happen, Micah is forced to recalibrate his entire view of himself and his life so far – the redhead of the title doesn’t exist, it’s a fire hydrant that Micah repeatedly mistakes for a small person while running without his glasses on. There’s a superb set piece of a dinner with Micah’s family that is vintage Tyler and much to admire in the novel as a whole.
Love and Other Thought Experiments – Sophie Ward (Corsair)
Rachel and Eliza are a couple. When the novel begins their flat has an ant infestation and they are thinking about having a baby. Lying in bed one night, Rachel dreams she’s been bitten and wakes up. She becomes convinced that an ant has crawled into her eye. Eliza thinks Rachel is mistaken and Rachel connects this to her belief that Eliza doesn’t want a baby because she thinks Rachel will be a bad mother. They have the baby and the ant takes up permanent residence inside Rachel. From there the book develops in unexpected ways.
Each chapter begins with a summary of a philosophical theory, then the story that follows illustrates that theory. As you’re reading the chapters seem to be loosely interlinked stories, but the connection between them becomes clear towards the very end. The book moves between perspectives, time periods and genres. To say too much would spoil what a clever, intriguing journey this takes you on, but I will say that the ideas reminded me of Speak by Louisa Hall and the structure of The Shore by Sara Taylor and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Definitely worth a read if genre-bending time travel is your thing.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold – C Pam Zhang (Virago)
Set in the North American goldrush, How Much of These Hills is Gold is largely told through the perspectives of Lucy and Sam, 12 and 11-years old respectively. Their Ba is dead and, as the novel begins, they set out to bury him somewhere he might regard as home. The problem is that Ba never settled, always in pursuit of the gold that would make the family rich. This journey bookends the novel. In the middle, we get the story of the family, particularly that of Lucy’s education, followed by Ba’s ghost telling the true tale of how him and Ma met, rather than the version that’s become the family story.
The book’s concerned with who’s allowed to tell a story and how they choose to, or are allowed to, tell it. Ba’s section particularly serves as a corrective to the rich, white men’s tales of who found gold and who it belonged to. Zhang also considers race and gender. We would describe Sam as trans, and his story illustrates that trans people have been present (and erased from many narratives) for a long time. His trajectory, when contrasted to Lucy’s, highlights similarities and differences between the way they are treated.
The novel reinserts non-white people, specifically Chinese people and, to a lesser extent, indigenous North Americans, back into a part of history from which they’ve largely been erased, reasserting their agency and complexity. Zhang does all this while pulling off a page-turning, immersive story of the American West complete with cowboys, shooting, stealing, a rotting corpse and the question of what it means to be family. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is superb.
Review copies provided by the publishers as listed except This Mournable Body, Such a Fun Age, and Love and Other Thought Experiments which are my own copies.