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.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

It’s quite interesting reading and reviewing a book long after it’s been both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. I like to come to books knowing as little as possible about them – impossible in this case, which leads you to begin reading expecting it to be amazing.

Bring Up the Bodies, as we all know, is the sequel to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Wolf Hall. As with any book that garners that amount of attention, people’s reactions to it covered the spectrum of possible reactions. My own was mixed: it was okay. I liked the idea of taking Thomas Cromwell as the central character and the time period’s an interesting one, but using ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell was confusing and I found myself having to reread chunks of text to work out who was doing what.

That seems to have largely been resolved in Bring Up the Bodies – more so because we’re aware of it before beginning reading, rather than due to any change in Mantel’s narrative style.

The novel begins at Wolf Hall:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and the riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

Immediately we are back in Tudor England. We’ve been reminded that Cromwell’s wife and girls are dead and that this is a brutal regime where Henry VIII gets what he wants because Cromwell provides it for him.

In this novel, that’s going to be the removal of Anne Boleyn – unable to provide Henry with the male heir he’s desperate for – and the installation of Jane Seymour. Watching the way the women are treated – regardless of any power they think they may have – is fascinating, the details of such Mantel provides through some incredibly powerful descriptions:

Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.

I found Bring Up the Bodies enormously enjoyable. The focus, the incredible prose, the humour (oh yes, it’s funny too) all meant that I was utterly engrossed.

Is it amazing? Yes it is.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the story of Bernadette Fox – mother of Bee; wife of Elgin Branch: Microsoft creative genuis; antagoniser of the Parent Association at Galer Street School.

The novel begins with Bee’s exemplary school report:

Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humour. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic, not merely getting a good grade.

And so on. This establishes three things: Bee’s intelligence and therefore, ability to narrate the novel; Bee’s reward for her outstanding report – a trip to Antarctica, which becomes a focal point, and (from her reaction to both the report and the planned excursion) Bernadette’s character.

Bernadette has an internet assistant, Manjuela, whom she employs to do a variety of tasks from making reservations for Thanksgiving dinner to organising prescriptions for seasickness medication.

Of the million reasons I don’t want to go to Antarctica, the main one is that it will require me to leave the house. You might have figured by now that’s something I don’t much like to do. But I can’t argue with Bee. She’s a good kid.

The only way to get to Antarctica is by cruise ship. Even the smallest one has 150 passengers, which translates into me being trapped with 149 other people who will uniquely annoy the hell out of me with their rudeness, waste, idiotic questions, incessant yammering, creepy food requests, boring small talk, etc.

By this point (page eight), I already loved Bernadette.

The majority of the novel is told through a collection of reports, emails and letters with occasional narration from Bee. This gives the book a range of voices and a good variety of pace and tone, as well as allowing for some excellent set pieces.

Semple does a great job of creating characters whose behaviour, while often outrageous, remains within the bounds of credible and allows for numerous comic moments.

Take Audrey Griffin, for example. Audrey Griffin is your annoying next-door neighbour. The one who comments on the ‘state’ of your house and garden:

Audrey started short-circuiting about our blackberry bushes and her organic garden and the guy who had a friend with a special machine and something that needed to get done this week.

The one who runs the Parents’ Association at your child’s school:

I created the Diversity Council. I invented Donuts for Dads. I wrote Galer Street’s mission statement, which that fancy company in Portland was going to charge us ten thousand dollars for.

The one who thinks their child is a little angel:

‘We found something in Kyle’s locker yesterday.’ She held up an orange pill bottle. It had my name on it – it was the Vicodin prescription I got after Our Lady of Straight Gate tried to plow me over in her car.

‘What’s that doing here?’ I said.

‘Kyle?’ Gwen said.

‘I don’t know,’ said Kyle.

‘Galer Street has a zero-tolerance drug policy.’ Gwen said.

‘But it’s prescription medicine,’ I said, still not understanding her point.

While the book focuses on Bernadette and – through her relationships with the other characters – what’s become of her personally since her family’s move to Seattle, it also considers what we really know of other people – how we judge and misrepresent for our own ends.

This is the second time I’ve read Where’d You Go, Bernadette and it was every bit as good as the first. I’ll be adding it to my collection of ‘comfort’ reads to return to as and when I need a guaranteed cracking good read.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 – Shortlist Predictions

A month after the 20 strong longlist was announced for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, shortlisting is upon us. I’ve read 17 of the 20 books listed, links to the reviews of which, you can find here.

I’m going to do two shortlists – my preferences i.e. the books that I would have chosen were I the sole judge and my predictions as to the books the judges will choose (so we can all have a good laugh tomorrow at how far off I am!).

What’s been good about the incredibly long list of 20 books is that I’ve only come across one so far that I really didn’t like and – more importantly – I’ve discovered a writer I’ve never come across before who is amazing – Michelè Roberts – and a writer who I knew existed but might never have read otherwise and is also brilliant – Barbara Kingsolver.

So, my choices:

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

I know, I haven’t even read it yet, but it’s Hilary Mantel. I read Beyond Black when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, I’ve read her memoir Giving Up the Ghost and I’ve read Wolf Hall. The only reason I haven’t read Bring Up the Bodies yet is because I have a paperback of Wolf Hall and I like sets to match. Yes, I’m one of those. Anyway, Mantel is one of our greatest writers and deserves to stand alongside the likes of Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and anyone else from the literary establishment you care to mention.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

Not just her best book yet, I suspect one of the best books of the year. The scope of the narrative; the characters – particularly Ursula – who you root for time after time; that incredible structure that could have become so tedious but instead illuminates the whole novel. It’s simply wonderful.

Ignorance – Michelè Roberts

A surprise one for me but this is a new take on the WWII novel, focusing on the relationship between two women and how life treats you depending on whether you have money and status or not. Beautifully written.

How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti

Divisive this one but I loved it. Heti’s novel uses emails and conversations – that we’re led to believe are real – between her and her friends, mainly the artist Margaux. Through them and her work, her lovers and her wanderings, Heti wonders what sort of person she should be and how she would become that person. Inventive and thought provoking.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? – Maria Semple

Another novel that makes use of emails as well as reports, transcripts and letters. This is the story of Bernadette and her daughter, Bee. It’s almost a year since I read it but the humour, the darkness and the novel’s big heart are still vivid.

The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber

It takes guts to write a novel in verse and make that novel accessible to everyone. Barber not only pulls this off, she tells a story that is wildly inventive but relatable. Yes, the idea that Christopher Marlowe didn’t die in that tavern brawl and then went on to write under the name William Shakespeare may be implausible but that he loved, that he had his heart broken, that he lived under a brutal regime, those – through Barber’s words and images – we feel along with Marlowe himself.

My predictions (I’ve chosen these based on the theory that the judges will have to agree on all of the titles):

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
The Marlowe Papers – Ros Barber
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Maria Semple
N-W – Zadie Smith

Of the books I’ve not mentioned on either list, these are the others that you really should make time to read:

The Children of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu
May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
Lamb – Bonnie Nazdam