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.

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

If you bought or borrowed a Joyce Carol Oates novel in the late 90s/early 00s, it would have come with a quote from one of several journalists proclaiming that she, rather than one of the men regularly touted, was actually the Great American novelist.  Well, in the 2010s, it seems there’s a new contender.

Image

May We Be Forgiven covers a year in the life of Harry Silver and his family. We meet them  – Harry’s wife Claire, his brother George, sister-in-law Jane and their children Nathaniel and Ashley – at Thanksgiving. Harry hates TV executive George and his children:

They were absent children, absent of personality, absent of presence, and, except for the holidays, largely absent from the house.

They live in a house with ‘a television in every room’ and Harry declares that his brother ‘can’t bear to be alone, not even in the bathroom’.

By the end of dinner, a chain of events has been set in motion. The first:

My [Harry’s] fingers were deep in the bird, the hollow body still warm, the best bits of stuffing packed in. I dug with my fingers and brought stuffing to my lips. She [Jane] looked at me – my mouth moist, greasy, my fingers curled into what would have been the turkey’s g-spot if they had such things – lifted her hands out of the water and came towards me, to plant one on me. Not friendly. The kiss was serious, wet, and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected. She did it, then snapped off her gloves and walked out of the room. I was holding the counter, gripping it with greasy fingers. Hard.

From then on, Harry can’t stop thinking about ‘George fucking Jane’.

The second happens ‘towards the end of February’. Harry receives a phone call from Jane, asking him to go and pick George up from the police station:

“He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was alive at the scene – in the back seat, next to the surviving boy. Rescue crew used the Jaws of Life to free the wife, upon release she expired.”

George is allowed to go home while the cause of the accident is investigated but it soon becomes obvious that he’s not well and he’s hospitalised. Harry’s wife encourages Harry to stay with Clare ‘in case things deteriorate further’ and from then on in it’s a roller coaster of events. Events that Harry has to deal with while continuing his day job as a Nixon scholar.

Holmes has plenty to say about life in America (and, by extension, the West) today – the pace, the technology, the overt sexuality, the lack of thought and care that defines our relationships – and she does it well, letting the themes and ideas come through the story. That is until the final fifth of the book.

Towards the end of the novel, George’s son Nathaniel decides that he wants his Bar Mitzvah to take place in Nateville, a town in South Africa that he visited with his school. It’s been named after him due to the amount of money Nate’s donated via a middleman scheme he’s been running at school using his dad’s credit card. During the visit the difference between them and us and the issues that capitalism has caused are writ large. They’re then followed by Harry eulogising about how that year’s changed him and how he’s a much better person for it. It’s unnecessary, we got it.

However, it would be churlish to say that this ruins a great piece of writing. It doesn’t. It’s a small part of a large book that is, on the whole, fast paced and well written. If it’s not quite the Great American novel, it’s not far off it.