Women’s Prize 2018 Longlist Thoughts

I’m serving on the prize’s shadow panel again this year (hooray!), along with three of my very favourite erudite readers/writers/thinkers: Naomi Frisby, Antonia Honeywell, and Eric Anderson. The longlist was announced last night (at 00:00 GMT, which is alarmingly antisocial for those of us who like our sleep). I haven’t yet decided how I feel about the list as a whole, apart from an initial gut reaction: it feels a bit old. Some of these books (Schmidt, Kandasamy) I read last May; they’ve had a long time to steep in my subconscious, or wherever it is that books go in a person after they’ve been read. But that’s hardly an argument against the books themselves, so maybe I’m being curmudgeonly.

I’ve read eight of the longlisted titles – exactly half. The list given on the Women’s Prize site is front-loaded with the titles that I haven’t read, which is an amusing probability quirk. (Why is Rachel Seiffert at the front of an otherwise alphabetical list? A tech issue? A last-minute addition? Who can say.)

Quick thoughts on each:

711bpyrwgolA Boy In Winter – Rachel Seiffert. I confess that not only have I not read this; I gazed at it with the eyes of extreme indifference when it came into the shop in hardback, and again when I got a paperback finished copy. Nazis in the Ukraine, I thought. Again with the Nazis, I thought. But my colleague Karin, with thirty years of bookselling experience, adores Rachel Seiffert, so I am prepared to be wrong.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f68b321b2-7061-11e7-8eac-856e9b33761e-1H(A)PPY – Nicola Barker. Barker’s work is, occasionally, barking (sorry), but pretty much always brilliant. H(A)PPY is intimidating because of its formal playfulness: typeface in different colours, shapes, and arrangements on the page, etc. Her novel The Cauliflower didn’t inspire me hugely, but it was impressive, and I remain haunted by the first forty pages of Darkmans (read standing up at a library sale) despite not having bought the book or finished it. So I’ve high hopes for H(A)PPY.

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The Idiot – Elif Batuman. Who doesn’t love a good campus novel? I keep forgetting the plot of this one; I think it has to do with a Turkish student at Harvard in the ’90s, and is meant to be comedic. Sure. Sign me up.

61k-y31a2bgl-_sx342_bo1204203200_Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon. Here is where the commercial/literary interplay gets interesting, at least to me. Cannon is positioned as a pretty commercial writer—a good one, but one whose work you might happily send to your aunt who’s in a book club, if we’re going to be perfectly honest about it. I’m told, though, that The Trouble With Goats And Sheep also happened to be a fantastic book. Three Things About Elsie will have to tread a fine line because it’s about old people in a care home, which can easily go patronising, but then Cannon is a qualified psychiatrist, so.

32508630Miss Burma – Charmaine Craig. The one no one’s heard of. It looks pretty promising: a family saga set in Burma over the course of the twentieth century, with a family whose daughter becomes the country’s first beauty queen and must navigate politics and loyalty. I’m a little wary about the fact that it’s based on the author’s mother and grandparents; books that fictionalise close family members often feel off, like there’s too much reverence there to make a good story. Again, I look forward to being proved wrong.

34467031Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan. Apparently very unlike Egan’s other work (experimental, pyrotechnic, innovative), Manhattan Beach is instead a piece of solid historical fiction, featuring Mafiosi and the first female diver at Brooklyn’s naval yard. I haven’t raced to pick it up, but I do look forward to reading it.

coverThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. Hooray, the first one I’ve read! Full disclosure: I thought this was fantastic. So much more than a Georgian romp, although it’s that too; Gowar is so aware of issues surrounding class, race, sex and gender in the eighteenth century, and she makes us aware of them too without being anachronistic. It’s the same balancing act that Golden Hill managed with such aplomb.

isbn9781473652385Sight – Jessie Greengrass. Ticks a lot of Women’s Prize boxes—motherhood, daughterhood, legacy, mental health—but, I think/hope, in a fresh and new way. I’ve seen a fair amount of Sight coverage on Book Twitter, and Greengrass can write: her debut was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award in 2016. I’m hopeful about this one.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. In a nutshell: this is a hugely enjoyable book. It’s also got some issues, not least of which is the way in which it conflates autistic spectrum behaviour with behaviour resulting from trauma and/or PTSD. I’ve been selling the hell out of it, because it’s got very wide appeal, but I am not convinced that it needs to be on this list.

81yyupd-qul1When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy. I read this back in May, over a weekend that I began as someone’s girlfriend, and ended as a single person. This may account for the fact that I couldn’t think of much to say about it—raw grief tends to knock out my literary-critical faculties—but part of that might also be that, although this is an incredibly powerful and significant book, there is not a lot of subtlety to it. It draws very clearly and skilfully the pain of an abusive marriage, but I don’t recall finding much else in its pages, apart from that precise observational skill. Maybe my memory is faulty; maybe I read it at the wrong time. Maybe I should read it again.

isbn9781473660557Elmet – Fiona Mozley. This is a brilliant book, reminiscent of what Cormac McCarthy might have written if he had happened to be a Yorkshirewoman. Mozley writes a little too much of “the bits people skip”, as Elmore Leonard put it—landscape descriptions, mostly—but her characters fairly leap off the page; the gender-queering is smartly done; the depictions of violence coiled and unleashed are fearless.

ca83208b-2c74-44c7-b812-cbf84b585203The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why this is here. It’s got plenty of ambition but it’s not a great book—there are so many protagonists, so undifferentiated, that I kept having to remind myself who was who when I was writing my review. The same is true of the issues with which Roy engages: she’s got so much to say on so many topics that the effect is diminished, the reader’s empathy diffused instead of focused. The prose is fine, but Roy’s lyrical style suits her subject a lot less here than in The God of Small Things.

51y5ah4juvl-_sx323_bo1204203200_See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt. I tried my hardest to sell this, in the spring. “It’s a book about the Lizzie Borden axe murders!” I would chirp, as customers eyed me warily. “Written in woozy nauseating graphic lyrical vivid prose, with unreliable narrators aplenty!” About half of them would go for it, in the end. The other half would smile politely and turn their attention to whichever title was in my other hand. Their loss.

9781408886755Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie. This is a great divider of opinion. Some people think it’s melodramatic and silly; I think it needs to be melodramatic (it’s an adaptation of Antigone, for God’s sake, an actual Greek tragedy). I also think Shamsie is saying things that few other novelists dare to say about the experience of being young, Muslim, and British.

cover1The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal. The final one I haven’t read. A love story between two Irish kids in 1970s Birmingham, picking up with Mona, the wife, after they’ve split up. I haven’t read de Waal’s first book, but her championing of working-class writers recently has been inspirational. I’d love to love her writing, too.

9781408891025Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward. This book is stunning. I’m a firm fan of Ward’s now, having also read Salvage the Bones (her first National Book Award winner) and Men We Reaped, her memoir. Sing, Unburied, Sing takes its readers into the heart of America’s confusion about itself, through the eyes of Jojo, a young black boy growing up in Mississippi with his drug-addled mama, Leonie, his loving grandparents Pop and Momma, and his father Michael, a white man whose release from prison precipitates the road trip that forms the core of the book’s plot. It reads like the natural extension of William Faulkner’s legacy—both literary and in a wider cultural context.


Notable omissions: I am enraged that The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch, isn’t on this list. Seriously, I don’t get it at all. What other book this year has engaged so fearlessly and viscerally with questions of female power and agency, and the destructive power that accompanies male fear of emasculation? Maybe after The Power‘s win, the panel didn’t want another book too much like it, but come on. I’d give Yuknavitch Arundhati Roy’s spot. (Or maybe Gail Honeyman’s, entertaining though Eleanor Oliphant is.)

Other notable omissions are a couple of big guns: Winter by Ali Smith isn’t there, and neither is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. I had thought Jane Harris’s Sugar Money might be in with a chance, as well as Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose and The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. Failing to include Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry seems like a bit of an oversight, too.

Hilariously, when I sat down to brainstorm novels that were eligible, I went through the list a second time marking the titles that I thought would/should make it onto the longlist. Fully three of the longlisted titles were ones that I discounted as contenders: See What I Have Done, Eleanor Oliphant, and, of course, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.


Tackling the remainder of the list: I have eight still to read: Seiffert, Barker, Batuman, Cannon, Craig, Greengrass, and de Waal. My lovely colleague Faye has promised to loan me her copy of The Trick to Time, and I know we have plenty of stock of Three Things About Elsie in the shop. The others are a bit of a puzzle; I could reorder them for stock and sneakily read them, but I’m not sure that’s a good practice, in general. They’ve been in print for long enough that the chance of getting gratis proofs and finished copies will have gone. (Naomi tells me that, actually, publicists will send them and are expecting to be asked. Phew.) I’d rather not buy brand-new copies, especially since most of them (bar the Seiffert) are still in hardback. Might I have to use…my local library?! Stay tuned, listeners.

23 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2018 Longlist Thoughts

  1. I love your honest thoughts on these! Completely agree on the Honeyman and Shamsie and that overall the list seems a bit old. I’ve read 5 and got another 5 on my shelves and I’m just a regular reader! Really looking forward to the Barker and Greengrass.

  2. Meh. I expected the list to be a lot better. I’ve only read sing Unburied Sing and I wan’t over the moon about it. It was good but not great. I see why Jesmyn Ward is on the list though. She probably won’t win. As for what I’m interested in reading – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Elmet, and Home fire. These 3 have been on my TBR for a while now. Looks like I’ll be stepping them up next month. I’m also interested in reading When I Hit You. The rest I’ll be living vicariously through the reviews of my fellow bloggers and Booktubers. Happy reading!

    1. I also feel vaguely deflated about the list this year; I liked Sing Unburied Sing a lot more than you did, but none of the books that I’ve read really lit a fire in me, and none of the ones I haven’t are really grabbing me right now. (Well, ok, I loved The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but I’m not sure it’ll make it to the shortlist.) Still, I suppose this is the point of shadowing—reading things that I know about but didn’t feel inclined towards initially, and maybe discovering something great in the process.

      That said, Elmet and Home Fire are both seriously good books, and I hope you enjoy them both. When I Hit You is unforgettable, too; Kandasamy does write vivid sucker-punch sentences.

  3. I’ve only read the Joanna Cannon – which although very commercial (like Oliphant) was absolutely brilliant. Top of my to read list would be H(A)PPY – love Nicola Barker’s originality – every novel different.

      1. Darkmans (which I haven’t read yet) was Booker shortlisted, and I think she’s had a couple of longlistings too. H(A)PPY has won the Goldsmiths Prize, so maybe this’ll be her year for more recognition.

      2. Hope so—I did note H(A)PPY’s win, and was pleased for her (though I was personally backing my beloved Reservoir 13).

  4. I have a lot of these on my TBR list but haven’t read any of them. It seems daunting to start them all now, so I will just vaguely meander along: Elmet is one I am keen on.

  5. I don’t object to older titles being there. I think it’s easy for them to be overlooked but this isn’t a list that has filled me with joy. Of the ones I haven’t read – which is most of them – I’m keen to get my hands on Sight and The Idiot. Like you, I was amazed that Asymmetry didn’t appear. A brillant novel but perhaps too much of a Marmite one. Have fun with the shadowing! I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.

    1. Thanks! I don’t object to the older titles – I just find it boring that so many of them have been out for so long; the Women’s prize often introduces me to new work, and this list hasn’t really.

  6. That’s great that you’ve already read half of the longlist — it really reduces your reading load and stress! And you can always do a quick skim-read of the ones you’ve already read if they’re shortlisted. I did wonder how you’d get hold of the other books. [There’s no harm in sending a quick e-mail to the publicists. You never know; I got a fairly old Wellcome shortlisted title sent to me last year when I couldn’t get it via the library in time. And I know you don’t often read e-books, but you could check out NetGalley and Edelweiss as a last resort if you can’t find anything through a library local to where you live or work.] I just noticed you updated with Naomi’s advice above. I hope you’ll be able to get hold of them all! I have so far had no luck in getting Midas PR to send me a couple of Wellcome-longlisted books.

    Anyway, I’ve read 5 from the longlist. Of those I’d be really happy to see Mozley and Ward advance. I wasn’t keen on the Egan or Honeyman books. The Idiot is strange and deadpan and brilliant, but probably a little offbeat for this prize. I’ll be keen to see what you make of it. It’s very specific to its time period — about when my older sister was in college — so I don’t know if you’ll find it dated. I’m interested in most of the rest, though I didn’t think that much of Cannon’s first novel and Barker is a little too odd for me much of the time.

    Looking forward to following the panel’s reviews!

    1. Yay, thank you for your support! The Idiot is, I suspect, either going to be a big winner or a big not-winner for me; its time period coincides with a time when I technically existed but wasn’t sentient, so my assessment of it is necessarily going to be fairly partial, since I won’t be able to say with any authority whether it’s true to the era.

      I too would be delighted to see Elmet and Sing Unburied Sing on the shortlist, and am looking forward to getting a sense of what Nicola Barker, Joanna Cannon, Kit de Waal, and Jessie Greengrass are all about.

  7. That’s very exciting that you get to be on this panel. I’ve read only three of the books: I liked Home Fire the most, then Sing Unburied Sing, then Manhattan Beach. I want to read The Idiot and I’ve been torn about Eleanor Oliphant. Now I’ve added Elmet, Sight, Mermaid, When I Hit You, and See What I Have Done to my TBR list.

    1. Eleanor Oliphant is fun, though problematic; the others that you’ve added to your TBR are all, I think, worth reading (though See What I Have Done appears to divide opinion. I thought it was rather good, but hadn’t expected it to make the longlist.)

  8. I am partly excited about the list, partly not so much (I did not enjoy Manhattan Beach at all and could not finish The Ministry of Utmost Happiness). I am very much looking forward to your thoughts though!

  9. Great to read your thoughts on these. I’m currently reading the Sarah Schmidt (and loving it!), and found a secondhand copy of the Honeyman in Oxfam yesterday – boom – but hope to get a few more read before the shortlist is announced!

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