The Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2018

Last night The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 was awarded to Kamila Shamsie for the brilliant Home Fire. The judges referred to the book as ‘a novel of our time’ and I’d agree that Shamsie’s retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone is a compelling update exploring issues around immigration, assimilation and terrorism. I read it in one sitting; my review is here.

There was some number crunching with regards to The Women’s Prize on The Bookseller yesterday. The article looked at the trends in terms of previous winners. In the 23 years of the prize, Kamila Shamsie is only the fourth woman of colour to win the award and the first since 2007. What’s most interesting about the three previous winners is that they’ve gone on to be three of the top four biggest sellers (see snippet below); I’d be delighted to see Shamsie go on to join them.

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…

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

When Anna Kerrigan is eleven her father, Eddie, takes her on a visit to see Dexter Styles. Anna plays on the Styles’ private beach with Dexter’s daughter as a conversation takes place between the two men.

Eddie is a ‘bagman’, someone who carries bags between men who shouldn’t be seen associating.

The ideal bagman was unaffiliated with either side, neutral in dress and deportment, and able to rid these exchanges of the underhanded feeling they naturally had. Eddie Kerrigan was that man. He looked comfortable everywhere – racetracks, dance halls, theatres, Holy Name Society meetings. He’d a pleasant face, a neutral American accent, and plenty of practice at moving between worlds.

Eddie’s involvement with Dexter Styles has come about because of his other daughter, Anna’s sister, Lydia. Lydia is severely disabled and is cared for by her mother. She needs a special chair in order to be able to sit up. Working for Styles would allow Eddie to pay for this and feel as though he’s contributing to his daughter’s life. He doesn’t know how to behave with her preferring ‘to assume Lydia couldn’t think or feel except as an animal did, attending to its own survival’.

After a 40-page set-up, Egan jumps forward eight years. World War II is in progress. Anna is 19 and is working on the docks in Brooklyn, inspecting parts for battleships. Her father has disappeared five years earlier, leaving the apartment ‘as he would have on any day’ and never returning. Anna and her mother care for Lydia.

Anna befriends Nell, another young woman working at the naval yard. It’s Nell who convinces her to go to a nightclub where she’ll meet Dexter Styles for the first time since the day she went to his house. This allows Egan to follow Styles and show us around his world. It also gives Anna an opportunity to try and discover what happened to her father. While this is building, Anna discovers that divers work in the yard and she decides it’s something she wants to do. Men are leaving for active service every week, she assumes that at some point they’ll have to allow a woman to dive.

With Manhattan Beach Egan creates an engaging tale of a woman forging a path through a very male world. This is true both of Anna’s attempts to become a diver and the relationship that develops between her and Styles. It’s a very different type of book to A Visit from the Goon Squad, more of a conventional historical narrative. It loses something in the length of the novel: there are sections where we discover what happened to Anna’s father that could’ve been cut, and in some sections Egan’s research into the docks and the role of the divers threatens to overwhelm the story. However, where Egan does delight is in the trajectories of the characters. At an event for Manchester Literature Festival last year, she talked about mapping out all the possible decisions a character could make to ensure she chose the least likely. This could be disastrous in someone else’s hands but Egan lays the threads that not only make these twists and turns plausible but also entirely believable.

Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Selin arrives at Harvard to begin her university education as the internet is becoming more widely used. One of the first things she’s given is an email address:

And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it any time.

With this Batuman introduces the key themes of the novel: language, communication and unrequited love. It is via email that Selin will later attempt to progress a friendship with a fellow student.

Initially, Selin tries to navigate her way through which courses to take, who to hang out with and how her relationship with her roommates will work. Eventually she gets into a routine, particularly with her Russian class which meets every day. There she reconnects with Ralph, who she’s met previously at a summer program, and Ivan who becomes her unrequited crush. She is also befriended by Svetlana who’s seen Selin in Linguistics 101.

Some of the reading for the Russian class is a text called Nina in Siberia. It’s been written especially for beginner students using only the grammar they’ve learned so far. In the first section, a man named Ivan has left the protagonist Nina a letter saying he’s left for Siberia.

I found myself reading and rereading Ivan’s letter as if he’d written it to me, trying to figure out where he was and whether he cared about me or not.

When Selin begins to email the real Ivan, she uses the letter as a template to start their correspondence. It’s also via Ivan that she spends the summer in Europe, mostly in Hungary, teaching English in a village. His friend runs the scheme and Ivan tells Selin that he’ll be in Budapest so they can see each other on the weekends.

The Idiot explores some interesting ideas around language and communication. Batuman considers what it means to think and speak in different languages, how communicating electronically or by phone is different to communicating in person, and what you can teach someone about a language that isn’t their first one.

Selin’s trying to work out how to be in the world and the narrative meanders along with her as she tries different friendships and experiences. The Idiot is clever – the exploration of language and the intertextual play is well done and interesting – however, there is a little too much meandering as Selin negotiates a year at university. Worth reading if you want to take an intellectual wander.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

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.