The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Shadow Panel Shortlist

With the official Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist due today, here’s the books the shadow panel felt should make the shortlist.

I’ve reviewed three so far, if you click on the covers of Elmet, A Boy in Winter and Home Fire it will take you to my reviews. The rest are on their way!

This is the fourth year I’ve run a panel and it was our most varied discussion yet. We’ve never had such a wide range of opinions on the same set of books, which mirrors both the range and quality of the longlist. We also discovered that some of us fundamentally disagree on what constitutes fiction and what its job should be. That introduced an interesting element to our conversation!

We’re looking forward to seeing what makes the official shortlist. Apparently the announcement is happening this morning on BBC Radio 4…

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert

‘I say to myself: where there is light, there will be shadow as well. There will always be darkess, and we must accept this.’

A Boy in Winter takes place over three days in the Ukraine in 1941. It follows several characters as the SS move into a small town and begin rounding up Jews.

Otto Pohl has chosen to work for the Nazis, against his wife’s wishes. An engineer, Pohl decided that building a road was preferable to fighting for Hitler, a man Pohl and his wife are convinced will lose.

The novel begins with Pohl watching the SS searching for Jews at first light.

‘Aufstehen!’

They are ordered to stand.

‘Mach schon!’

They are ordered to run.

They are herded; they are herded – Pohl can find no other word for it. Three soldiers behind them, even more ahead, the two old people are run down the cobbled street.

He can’t leave the town and get to work quickly enough that morning. But soon he’s forced to realise his complicity in events and has to make a decision as to whether or not he continues to be part of the regime.

Yasia is a young, local woman who lives and works on her father’s farm. Initially, she’s a reminder that the Ukraine have had years of occupation by this point in time:

‘Ten years,’ her papa told his children. ‘But this is the worst one.’

All the collectives in the district had been told to bring in the harvest, though it was barely July. They were to work day and night, if need be. Or destroy the crop: pour paraffin on the fields and burn them. Leave nothing for the Germans.

‘What have the Germans done to us, I ask you? It’s the Communists I’d set fire to,’ her papa declared. ‘I’d walk away and leave them burning.’

Yasia has her own reason to hate Stalin, her husband-to-be, Mykola, was drafted into the Red Army. On his return, Yasia’s father refused to allow them to marry because Mykola’s family couldn’t afford to keep her. When the Germans arrive, Mykola signs up to work for them so he can earn money to maintain his family’s farm, leaving Yasia once again.

Connecting these characters are two young boys who’ve disappeared. On the factory floor where the town’s Jews are being kept, Ephrain and his wife, Miryam, watch the doors waiting for Yankel and Momik to arrive. Ephrain knows that wherever the boys are hiding, there will be trouble once they’re found.

Seiffert explores the choices people make in wartime, the compromises and the rash decisions. The strength of the novel lies in its grey areas. Neither of the main characters are straightforwardly good or bad, both have to confront unexpected situations which could lead to devastating outcomes for those involved. It’s impossible to read a book set in the World War II without a sense of dramatic irony and Seiffert uses this to good effect.

A Boy in Winter is an unsettling look at a horrendous situation. Unflinching but not without hope.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2018

Here it is, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist. Initial thoughts are that I’m very excited. This is a great list. Two of my favourite books of last year are there – When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy and Elmet by Fiona Mozley – and one of my favourites so far this year – Sight by Jessie Greengrass. One of my all-time favourite writers, Nicola Barker, makes the longlist for the first time with her twelfth novel H(A)PPY. I haven’t read it yet because I’ve been wanting time to sit and savour it, which never happens, so I’m delighted to have to make that time now. The book and writer I hadn’t heard of is Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig. I love that this list always produces at least one new to me writer. The other thing that’s really pleasing is that seven of the sixteen writers are women of colour, by far the highest number we’ve ever seen from this prize and about time too.

Here’s the list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews of the four I’ve already covered and will return to this page to link the rest as I work my way through the rest of the list.

H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gower

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

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

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

The Walk Home – Rachel Seiffert

The boy turned up with no work boots, just a pair of old trainers, and a holdall slung across his back, almost as big as he was. Jozef looked at him, doubtful, on the doorstep; at his red hair and freckles, and the way he squinted in the summer light, the June sun already up above the rooftops…

‘Romek tellt me tae come straight here. He said you’d pay me.’

Jozef gives the boy a job on the development he’s managing and allows him to sleep there while the job’s on, although he’s not entirely comfortable with this arrangement – it raises questions about the boy’s family. But Josef’s got family problems of his own, his wife, Ewa, has returned to Gdańsk and he doesn’t know whether he’ll be welcome when he’s finally made enough money to return.

The story of the boy on the building site is told alongside that of a family living on the Drumchapel estate in Glasgow. While the building site section of the novel is set in the present day, the Drumchapel story is told from a day in the early 1990s when the youngest son, Graham, travels to Tyrone to play the drum for a band on an Orange Walk.

Graham was eighteen and rubbish at talking to females. Even some he’d known years like his brothers’ wives. He looked like a grown man, only he wasn’t yet; he was just all shoulders and neck, wide forehead, and no talk. Everyone in the flute band was aware of this, so when they were out in the Ulster wilds, it was Graham they dispatched to get the lunch, because it was a girl he’d have to speak to on the burger van: a fine one.

On this occasion he manages to talk to her well enough to end up have sex with her twice – once on the track behind the pub they’re drinking in after the walk and again in the hallway of her parents’ house. When he returns home, they speak over the ‘phone every few hours. Six weeks later, Graham goes to fetch a seventeen-year-old, pregnant Lindsey to live in Drumchapel.

The baby, Stevie, grows up to be the boy in the other half of the story. Seiffert tells the story of his time on the development with the Poles alongside that of his childhood, culminating in the reader discovering why he left home and why he hasn’t contacted them since arriving back in Glasgow.

The chapters about Stevie’s childhood focus on the whole family – Graham and Lindsey but also Graham’s parents, Malky and Brenda, Brenda’s brother Eric and their deceased father Papa Robert. Seiffert considers the things which cause ruptures in families. In the case of this family, heavily rooted in working class Scotland, religion and the politics of Northern Ireland – where both Lindsey and Papa Robert were born and grew up – play a part.

Brenda, and later Lindsey, hates Graham playing in the flute band while Papa Robert and Brenda’s other brothers disowned Eric when he moved from the estate and married a Catholic woman. While Stevie’s family clearly do their best for him, his home life is steeped in tension – his mother and father disagree about moving to a new place, away from Drumchapel; they disagree about the band; his Uncle Eric tells him religious stories and draws pictures of Glasgow containing religious symbols and ideas as he struggles to come to terms with his relationship with Papa Robert.

One of the things that’s impressive about the novel is that Seiffert centres it on family relations and while the themes of religion, sectarianism and class are present, they are never allowed to overwhelm the story. This is not a novel about religion, it’s a novel about a family, their relationship with each other and their connection to the place(s) they come from. Brenda sums it up in a phone call to Lindsey’s father not long after she’s come to live with them:

‘Lindsey’s been away before now, and she’s always come home again.’

It gave her heart that he could say that. Even if he spoke like his girl was a dead weight. A disappointment. It didn’t seem right to talk like that, not to someone he’d never met, not about his own child. But Brenda knew the weight of her own boys: much as she loved them, there were times they felt like four great stones. So she said:

‘They keep us fae slipping away wae the tide, anyhow.’

And Lindsey’s Dad managed a laugh, tight and short:

‘Aye well. That’s one way to look at it.’

Seiffert shows the damage that family members can inflict on each other without judging or stereotyping. Her characters are rounded individuals with varying views and ways of living. Her ear for the Glaswegian accent, successfully translated onto the page adds to the sense that this group of people could well be alive, waiting for Stevie’s return as I type.

The Walk Home has also been reviewed by fellow shadow prize judge, Eric. Click on his name for his review.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy

The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015

It’s here! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2015 is as follows:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

I’ve read and reviewed six of those already, if you hover over the titles, I’ve linked to my reviews.

Initial thoughts are I’m absolutely thrilled for Lissa Evans whose book I love and made my end of year list last year. Also very pleased for Sara Taylor whose debut I’ve read but not posted my review of yet (it’s published later this month), which is very good. I’ve got lots of reading to do but many of the books there are books I’ve had in my to be read pile for a while! (I also need to apologise to the person who commented on my wish list and mentioned Heather O’Neill’s book; I didn’t think it was eligible and clearly I was wrong. I’m pleased it comes highly recommended though.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest and discussing with the rest of the shadow panel. Please do join in and let us know what you think of the list and any of the books you read.