The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

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A month ago, when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, I commented on what an exceptional year it had been for writing by women. This is supported by both the reading we’ve done and the discussions we’ve had as a shadow panel. There have been some heated debates about some of the books and some that every one of us felt should be included on our shortlist but, for the first time since I began shadowing this prize with a panel, there wasn’t a single book that we didn’t think worthy of its inclusion on the longlist. This is the fifth year I’ve shadowed this prize and this has been, without question, the strongest longlist I’ve seen.

I preface our chosen shortlist with these remarks because I want to make a case for every single one of the 16 books that make up the longlist. Whether they’ve made our shortlist or not and whether or not they make the official shortlist tonight, there are 16 books by women worthy of your time.

One of the things that infuriates me about so-called ‘women’s fiction’ (as if somehow fiction written by women is gendered while fiction written by men is not) is the idea that it is concerned with the domestic sphere. The 16 books which make up the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2017 cover politics, science, ecology, farming, horse breeding/racing, crime, prisons, acting, music, writing, race, medicine, sex, drugs, performance, religion, violence, love, family, gender, marriage, parenting, death, grief, abuse and friendship. I defy anyone to look at the list and say there isn’t a single book on it that doesn’t interest them. Indeed, if you’re a man who doesn’t read books by women, there’s one here to get you started. Or, if you know a man who doesn’t read books by women, buy the one you know that’ll get him hooked – tear the cover and front pages off if you have to – and present him with it.

Here, then, are the six books we’ve chosen to shortlist. They’re not the six I thought we’d select when the list was announced, but now we’ve read them all, they’re the six that – as a panel – we felt most strongly about. If you click on the cover, it will take you to my review. You can read Eleanor’s reviews here and Eric’s here. Thanks also to Antonia and Meera. We’ll announce our winner on Tuesday 6th June, the day before the official winner is crowned.

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The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

Gustav Pearle lives with his mother, Emilie, in Matzlingen, Switzerland. His father, Erich, is dead. Emilie tells Gustav that his father was a hero and he died helping the Jews. As a result, Emilie dislikes Jews.

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Aged five in 1947, Gustav meets Anton Zwiebel at kindergarten. Gustav’s the only person able to stop Anton from crying; he does so by repeating his mother’s phrase that ‘you have to master yourself’. Gustav and Anton become firm friends and are soon spending time with each other outside of school. This disconcerts Emilie, not only because Anton and his family are Jewish but also because they are rich while she has fallen on hard times. She worries that Gustav will expect a certain type of lifestyle because he’s been exposed to it. At six, Anton is already a talented pianist:

There was so much that had been confusing about ‘The Linden Tree’ that Gustav almost wished Anton hadn’t played it. It wasn’t just the business about the notes sounding like rustling leaves (and yet they didn’t, not quite), or the sad man who was and was not there; it was the fact of Anton being able to play this complicated song. How could he have learned it? When?

And then Gustav had another thought which he found very disturbing. He imagined that at the very time when he and Emilie were on their hands and knees cleaning the Church of Sankt Johann, on Saturday mornings, Anton was with his piano teacher. He and Emilie were scrubbing and dusting and polishing while Anton was playing music by Schubert.

The novel’s divided into three sections: the first covers Gustav’s childhood, his friendship with Anton, Anton’s attempts to become a concert pianist, and Emilie’s illnesses both mental and physical. The second goes back in time and tells the story of Emilie and Erich’s relationship, and the third travels forward to Gustav and Anton’s middle age. What connects all three sections is love.

Tremain explores love in different forms: parent and child, friends, lovers, spouses, companions. What’s particularly interesting is the disparity between the picture Emilie paints of Erich and the revelation about his past behaviour. It raises questions about coping mechanisms for those who remain after someone close to them has died and very skilfully questions whether Erich’s heroism at helping Jews remain in Switzerland is compromised through his behaviour in his private life.

Some of the books on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize have caused serious debate and disagreement between the shadow panel; The Gustav Sonata is one of those books – we’re absolutely split in terms of our opinions on it. For me, it never really came off the page. The issue here, I suspect, is mine: I’ve recently been reading and writing about women writing women and the number of books by women about women which go on to win major literary prizes. (See Nicola Griffith’s analysis of this.) I was frustrated then that this is largely a book about men; it would scrape through The Bechdel Test. It’s also a very measured book and I prefer something more high wire. For balance, therefore, I’ll direct you to my fellow shadow panel member, Eric, who had a very different reaction to me.

 

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan