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.

N-W – Zadie Smith

N-W is the story of two school friends Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake. It is also the story of N-W London.

By opening the novel with the following description, Smith makes it clear that N-W London is her main character:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

I think it’s also clear however, that although, in one sense, we could declare N-W Zadie Smith’s love letter to her patch of London, it is a love letter written after a long marriage, decades after the rose tinting has cracked and peeled off.

Following a short scene-setting chapter, Leah (the redhead) is disturbed by the doorbell ringing. Thumping on her door, screaming and crying, is Shar who – after discovering that she and Leah attended the same school and reminiscing about other ex-students – proceeds to scam Leah out of £30. This is one side of life in N-W London. A thread that is further explored through the stories of Felix, who seems to be changing his life following years of drug use and unsuitable women and Nathan, one of the people Shar and Leah remember from school; a young man struggling to carve an identity for himself in a society that doesn’t much care for him.

The thread running parallel to this is that of Keisha Blake. Now Natalie Blake, lawyer. One of Natalie’s functions in the story is to look at what happens if you ‘get out’ of the area/family/class you’re born into. Or indeed, if you really do get out. Perhaps Keisha/Natalie has simply switched one set of fences for another. This idea is further highlighted by the section in which her story (and that of her friendship with Leah) is told through the use of 185 numbered sections, some as short as a sentence, none longer than three pages. Yes, we could conclude that they are ‘chapters’ of Natalie’s life. We might also wonder, however, if this is Natalie playing by numbers, living life by the rules. Where have these rules got her by the present day of the novel?

‘Nowhere,’ said Natalie Blake. (N-W? An unloved hinterland? A place you can’t escape?)

The other prominent theme explored is that of motherhood. Leah openly (although she doesn’t seem to have discussed this with her husband) doesn’t want children. Natalie has three and this is something else – along with Natalie’s new status – that divides the two women. I can’t think of any other novel that has openly discussed the idea of a woman choosing to remain childless. What’s most impressive about this, I think, bar Smith’s decision to tackle what remains a volatile subject, is that she does so without judgement. Something that is also true of the lifestyle choices her characters make. She draws the scene and the people and leaves it for her readers to discuss.

One final thing to mention is the skill with which Smith creates and uses dialogue within the book. There is absolutely no doubt as to where you are:

I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty.

‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you, Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid, man!’

Which creates the perfect foil to Natalie’s style of speech:

‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a series practice – do you have any idea how few – ‘

There’s no doubt that this is a serious work of fiction that explores key contemporary ideas not only about N-W London but about the U.K. as a whole. It’s by no means flawless – there are some typographical choices that didn’t work for me and I found the section devoted to Natalie slow in places (although Alan at Words of Mercury disagrees with me on that) – but it’s ambitious and left me with more questions than answers, which is something I like in a novel.

I’m glad N-W has been longlisted and I think it has shortlist potential. The mind boggles as to why the Booker Prize judges chose to omit it from last year’s shortlist though, this is perfect Booker material to my mind.