The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 Longlist

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longest arrived at midnight last night and, as ever, is an eclectic mix of books ranging from established writers to debut authors.

I’m delighted to see three of my books of 2018 on there – Milkman by Anna Burns, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

From the 2019 crop, I interviewed Lillian Li last month about her excellent debut Number One Chinese Restaurant and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is a wild anti-patriarchal ride. I’m thrilled that Valeria Luiselli is there with her English language debut Lost Children Archive (which I’ll cover soon); I’ve championed her work since her debut in translation Faces in the Crowd (translated by Christina MacSweeney), which I reviewed for Bookmunch in 2012. I’m also very pleased to see the inclusion of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which I’m currently halfway through. Emezi identifies as non-binary trans and I think it’s hugely important that The Women’s Prize takes a step forward and embraces writers who identify outside the gender binary.

On a personal note, I made a decision at the beginning of the year that I wouldn’t be shadowing this year’s prize. Although the time between the longlist and shortlist announcements has been extended to eight weeks, reading and reviewing up to sixteen books in that time is still a stretch. I’m teaching 80% of my time at the moment, am about to begin reading for the MLF brochure, and I’m trying to finish writing my PhD thesis this year. Speaking of which, my new PhD supervisor, Yvonne Battle-Felton is on the longlist with her debut Remembered. I’m delighted for her but am also pleased to be living without the awkwardness of having to review a book by someone I’m working with! I will read and cover some of the other books but I’m enjoying choosing what I want to read, when I want to read it. I am looking forward to everyone else’s take on the list though and seeing which books emerge as favourites for the shortlist.

The full list:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
Milkman by Anna Burns
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Praise Songs for the Butterflies by Bernice L McFadden
Circe by Madeline Miller
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
Normal People by Sally Rooney

Books of the Year 2018

It’s been an unusual reading year for me; new work has meant I’ve read lots of things I wouldn’t have otherwise and it’s no coincidence that, for the first time, there’s a poetry collection included here. It’s also the first time there’s been a graphic novel in my list, although I’ve confused myself here as The One Hundred Nights of Hero is one of my favourite books and I’ve no idea why it didn’t make the list last year. Anyway, here’s my favourite fifteen books published in 2018, if there’s a theme to the list it’s this: feminist as fuck.

Milkman – Anna Burns

Until last week, I’d known what my book of the year was since May. And then I read Milkman. An eighteen-year-old woman walks the streets of what appears to be Belfast, although the setting is never named, reading classic literature. An encounter with a paramilitary man called Milkman sets off rumours about her and him, leading to an increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere in which the community, and her own family, draw conclusions from hearsay. Since Milkman won this year’s Booker Prize, much has been made of its apparently challenging nature. To me, it read like someone telling an anecdote in the pub, the story both moving forwards and circling back, characters known by nicknames and monikers. It’s a superb read: often funny, resolutely feminist, and possibly the best book about the Troubles I’ve read.

Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss

This is the book that was knocked off the number one spot at the last minute. Ghost Wall is the story of teenager, Silvie, as she takes part in an Iron Age reconstruction with her family. Her father is particularly keen that things should be as authentic as possible and it soon becomes clear that his views on women are severely outdated. The tension builds until a horrific act is committed. Moss’ writing is taut, sharp and will keep you on edge. My mini-review is here.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

When I read Everything Under earlier in the year, I described it on Twitter as spellbinding, the first time I’ve ever described a novel as such; the prose is mesmerising though. Gretal works as a lexicographer and is attempting to get Sarah, her estranged mother, to tell her story, allowing Gretal to fill in the gaps in her adolescence. Johnson reworks the Oedipus myth as an exploration of gender and mother/daughter relationships. Absolutely worthy of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.

America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo

Hero is an illegal immigrant, a member of the New People’s Army, a former prisoner of war. She leaves the Philippines to live with her uncle’s family, who she hasn’t seen in years. In San Fransisco, she begins to rebuild her life and makes friends who’ll become her new family. Castillo explores ideas of home through language, food, family, friendship and love. Big, bold and absorbing. My full review and interview with Elaine is here.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I wouldn’t have read Three Poems if Hannah Sullivan hadn’t been booked for Manchester Literature Festival and I’m so glad she was. Poem one tells of the narrator’s time in New York, living and dating; two of moving to California and repetition, and three of the birth of her son and the death of her father. As a whole, it’s an impressive piece of work, while individual lines have stayed with me for months.

Whiskey & Ribbons – Leesa Cross-Smith

Eamon is killed when his wife, Evi, is nine-months pregnant. In the grief that follows, Dalton, Eamon’s adopted brother moves in to support Evi in raising Noah. As Evi and Dalton try to come to terms with their loss, they begin to grow closer. A beautifully written story of love, loss and longing. The story’s expanded from some pieces in Cross-Smith’s debut short story collection Every Kiss a War which I reviewed here.

The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui

Triggered by the birth of her first child, Thi Bui tells the story of her parents emigrating to the USA, intertwined with the history of Vietnam. Through it she begins to understand the experiences which shaped her parents and herself. Compelling and beautifully illustrated.

The Book of Joan – Lidia Yuknavitch

Christine Pizan is in her final year on CIEL and she’s planning to go out in spectacular style. She’s creating a skin graft telling the true story of Joan of Dirt, a story which has been outlawed by CEIL’s ruler, Jean de Men. Fierce, feminist and concerned with climate change, I’m still reeling from The Book of Joan ten months later. My full review is here.

To Throw Away Unopened – Viv Albertine

Viv Albertine’s second memoir is more personal than her first and all the better for it. Alongside the end of her marriage and her foray into dating again, she reconsiders her upbringing after the death of her father and the discovery of a bag of documents previously unseen. This is also considered alongside the death of her mother, which is detailed gradually as the book progresses and also her relationship with her sister which culminates in an unforgettable scene at their mother’s hospital bed. A powerful look at family stories and relationships and the impact they have on women.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Another discovery thanks to Manchester Literature Festival. Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad focuses on Briseis, largely telling the tale from her perspective. It’s brutal and brash, showing the men for spoilt, squabbling brats while giving women a voice in one of the oldest stories in literature. My full review is here.

Melmoth – Sarah Perry

Melmoth is condemned to wander the world, watching and collecting those of us who’ve been complicit in acts of harm. While Helen Franklin discovers the various accounts of Melmoth, Perry uses them as a vehicle to bear witness to atrocities from the Holocaust to the violent deportation of immigrants, forcing the reader to question their complicity. Compelling and uncomfortable reading. My mini-review is here.

Sight – Jessie Greengrass

There was a spate of books considering motherhood this year, Sight was one of the best. The narrator documents her thinking about whether or not she should become a parent alongside her memories of her grandmother, a psychoanalyst; the death of her mother, and medical developments including the creation of the X-ray. Clever and exquisitely written.

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

Phoebe Lin, a student at an elite NY university, is drawn into a cult intent on committing a terrorist act. Outsider, Will Kendall becomes close to Phoebe and, following her disappearance, tells the story of their relationship and what he knows about cult leader, John Leal. Compelling.

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – Meg Fee

Sometimes you read a book at the perfect time and Places I Stopped on the Way Home was one of them. Fee writes about her time in NYC, dating, living in shared houses, managing her recovery from an eating disorder, and what she learned about how to live. I underlined a lot. My review is here.

Snap – Belinda Bauer

In the first chapter of Snap, Jack and his sisters are left in the family car, on the hard shoulder of the motorway, as their mum goes to telephone for help. She never returns. It seems as though this is going to be a straight psychological thriller until chapter two jumps three years. Now Jack and his siblings live alone, the police are investigating a cat burglar they’ve called Goldilocks and pregnant Catherine has found a knife and a threatening note next to her bed. This is crime if it was written by Kate Atkinson and Lissa Evans; it’s about people not being who you think they are and what family will do to protect each other. It’s also very funny. I stayed up late to finish it in one sitting.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

‘“Silence becomes a woman.”’

Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying. We sat on the shady veranda and contemplated it for a moment and then suddenly burst out laughing, both of us together – not just laughing either, whooping, screeching, gasping for breath, until, finally, the men turned to stare at us and Tecmessa stuffed the hem of her tunic into her mouth to gag herself.

The Trojan War, probably the most famous war in literature. The story told in The Illiad. The story, as Barker puts it in her epigraph (taken from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain), of a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over ‘a girl’. Briseis: Mynes’ wife, stolen from Lyrnessus as a war trophy and given to the man who killed her husband and brothers – Achilles.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

Barker takes the story from the men and gives it to the women. She allows those long silenced by literature a voice – and what a voice. Briseis is no nonsense, confident, intelligent, blunt. She moves between Achilles’ hut and the women’s camp detailing what she sees, hears, and the things to which she’s subjected. Achilles rapes her, of course – ‘He fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing’ – but it’s after Briseis arrives at Achilles’ bed having been in the sea that he goes wild:

…there was immense passion; passion, but no tenderness. He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me. One moment, he was grinding me into the dust, the next, clinging on to me, as if afraid I might suddenly disappear.

Achilles has mummy issues. He’s also cocky and petulant, beautiful and elegant. He’s loyal to Patroclus, his friend from childhood, but at loggerheads with Agamemnon.

By handing the story to the women, Barker humanises Achilles and his fellow warriors. They are arrogant and spoiled with no qualms about taking anything they like whether that’s cities, finery or women. While Achilles’ prowess on the battlefield is shown, so are its consequences. From the systematic rape of the women – many of whom Briseis gets to know – to the goods that have been looted and turn up at unexpected moments: Briseis’ father’s tunic worn by Myron; the bride-gift necklace given by Briseis’ father to her mother and then placed around Briseis’ own neck by Odysseus.

Perhaps more importantly though, Barker wrenches one of the key canonical texts from the grasp of men – throwing shade at Roth along the way – and claims it for the women who’ve been ignored for centuries. At one point, when Briseis is serving wine she ponders why the men have her doing so. She concludes, ‘Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men’. With The Silence of the Girls Barker’s carved meaning into literature, messages addressed to women – these are our stories to claim and to tell – and to men – we’ll be silent no longer, literature doesn’t belong to you.