The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013: Who Should Win?

Tomorrow’s the big day when the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be decided. According to the prize’s website, ‘The Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English’. ‘The best’? How do you decide what’s best and what are the six shortlisted titles chances?

 

Bring Up the Bodies is a beautifully written novel. Mantel’s use of imagery is striking and taking the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell gave a fresh perspective to well-trodden ground.

Best for: imagery

Any flaws? Picky but Mantel herself has said that plotting isn’t her strong point which is why she’s borrowed from history.

 

 

Flight Behaviour is a cracking good story. Not something you might expect to say about a novel whose central theme is climate change. But Kingsolver is deft enough to ensure that her characters are characters and not ciphers, ensuring that we engage with Dellarobia and her hopes and dreams for a better life.

Best for: plot

Any flaws? No literary acrobatics (although some would see that as a good thing!)

Life After Life is Kate Atkinson’s most ambitious novel. Atkinson tells the story of Ursula, destined to die and be reborn on exactly the same day until she (or those responsible for her) work out how she is to survive for longer. Both they and her are unaware of her unusual ‘gift’. The structure allows Atkinson to explore the unpredictable nature of child birth at the start of the 20th Century; both world wars; family, marriage and friendship. The writing is incredibly vivid and has you rooting for Ursula as she unpicks another reoccurring scenario.

Best for: the unusual structure.

Any flaws? Some people dislike the unusual structure as it eliminates the possibility of death being a definite end.

May We Be Forgiven falls into the Great American Novel category. It is the story of Harry Silver and his family, or to be more precise, his brother’s family. When George causes an accident and Harry starts an affair with George’s wife, Jane, events spiral and Harry finds himself with two teenagers to raise while continuing his work as a Nixon scholar and meeting women on the internet.

Best for: pace and its comments on modern society.

Any flaws? In the final fifth of the novel the key theme is laid on thick.

 

N-W is Zadie Smith’s clear-eyed tribute to her home turf. It looks at that age-old English obsession with class and whether hard work really does mean you can escape your roots. Smith plays with structure and viewpoint to varying effect.

Best for: dialogue and themes.

Any flaws? The four sections aren’t equally as successful – opinions on the most and least successful vary.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the tale of a woman who’s lost sight of who she is. Her teenage daughter tells her story, put together through reports, emails and letters. This is a witty and heartfelt look at what happens when your life falls apart and you attempt to carry on regardless.

Best for: humour.

Any flaws? Depends how snobby you are – this is the most commercial book on the list.

 

 

The Winner?

Who do I think is ‘best’? It’s got to be Kate Atkinson for the combination of vivid writing and an unusual structure which, under less skilful hands, could’ve been far from successful. Fingers crossed.

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s one of those writers who I always feel I ought to have read. I’ve had a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in the house for goodness knows how long but it’s one of those books that, every now and then, I pick up, consider and, for whatever reason, decide it doesn’t quite take my fancy right now.

When my copy of Flight Behaviour arrived, I had two thoughts. The first was that it’s huge (433 pages) – I have issues with overlong novels – and the second was a worry that it’d be boring. Then I opened the first page:

A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away, and its one part rapture. Or so it seemed for now, to a woman with flame-coloured hair who marched uphill to meet her demise. Innocence was no part of this. She knew her own recklessness and marveled, really, at how hard one little flint of thrill could outweigh the pillowy, suffocating aftermath of long disgrace. The shame and loss would infect her children too, that was the worst of it, in a town where everyone knew them. Even the teenage cashiers at the grocery would take an edge with her after this, clicking painted fingernails on the counter while she wrote her check, eyeing the oatmeal and frozen peas of an unhinged family and exchanging looks with the bag boy: She’s that one.

I was engaged and remained so for the next 432 pages.

Flight Behaviour is the story of Dellarobia Turnbow and how climate change changes her. She’s walking up that hill in the opening paragraph of the novel to meet her lover but, as she gets higher up the forest, she looks across and sees that the trees are on fire:

The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upwards in swirls like funnel clouds…

A forest fire, if that’s what it was, would roar. This consternation swept the mountain in perfect silence.

Dellarobia takes it as a sign, turns around and goes back to her children and husband.

Dellarobia’s married to Cub, a sheep farmer from Feathertown who works on his parents’ land – his and Dellarobia’s house is built upon it – and still does whatever his mother tells him to. Dellarobia’s frustration comes from his family’s attitude towards her:

“My family, is just, I guess, typical. They feel like a wife working outside the home is a reflection on the husband.”

Dellarobia was one of the few students in her year that was told to try out for college. She did but soon discovered she was pregnant and that was the end of that. We sympathise with her then when her frustrations with her life are channeled through crushes on other men – she swears that when we meet her marching up that hill is the only time she’s actually considered being unfaithful though.

However, when Cub reveals that his father is going to sell the forest for logging to cover debts racked up by the poor harvest the previous year, Dellarobia knows she must show them what’s on that hill and when the things that they discover lead to national press coverage, a team of scientists stationing themselves on their land and tourists visiting, she discovers she can change her life by herself.

Flight Behaviour is simply good storytelling. I say ‘simply’ because, of course, Kingsolver is experienced and skilled enough to make creating believable characters and a cracking story look simple. She covers themes of climate change, religion, small town sensibilities, family secrets, marriage and thwarted ambition without it ever feeling that her characters are merely cyphers or that we’re having her opinions spelt out to us. This is a book to get lost in.