Women’s Prize Shortlist, 2019: WTF?

shortlist-wp-400x270

Well, it’s been released. And I am…disappointed. No, worse: I’m spitting.

First, and most importantly: Ghost Wall is not there. Ghost Wall is not there. It is a completely inexplicable omission. If this is an award for the best book written by a woman in any given year, to say that Ghost Wall is not in the top half-dozen is sheer insanity. Which book that did make the cut is more skillfully written, more ambitious in its scope, achieves more thematic coherence, possesses more emotional heft, and conjures an atmosphere of greater dread in fewer pages? Not a single one. Every word in Ghost Wall is earning its keep; each page is a knife. The very fact of Ghost Wall‘s absence means we can safely dismiss the authority of this year’s judges. Which makes the rest of this analysis somewhat redundant, but as an exercise in cultural what-the-fuckery, let’s take a look at this shortlist as a whole.

It contains two retellings of Greek myths, two dissections of the breakdown of a marriage, a zeitgeisty confection, and the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Groundbreaking.

Snark aside, seriously, from the top:

Circe is a tremendously enjoyable novel, and I am not furious about its presence on a shortlist, although I’d fling it under the nearest bus for Ghost Wall; Miller’s style has sharpened and matured since she won for The Song of Achilles, and although Circe is a touch episodic, the ending–with its revisionist fate for Penelope and Telemachus–encapsulates the book’s entire project (not only are gods much worse than humans, but to be a female god is sometimes worse than being a female human, in a nutshell) in a way that doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence. Of the two Greek myth retellings (which is, in itself, a baffling judicial decision), it is stronger than the Barker. The Silence of the Girls has its moments–in particular, the scenes set amongst the captured women, where they trade home remedies and look after each others’ kids–but mostly it is surprisingly full of manpain for a novel that was supposed to be a “feminist retelling” of The Iliad; the space and priority given to male voices and experience is not counterbalanced by Barker’s portrayal of Patroclus’s gentle, almost feminine energy. Nor, to be honest, did I find its prose especially “evocative”: it’s not enough to simply write sandals, fish, sea, sand and expect us to be swept away, and Barker never really engaged my sense of the strangeness of the past.

Another natural pairing in this shortlist–which is another way of saying “two books that do the same thing”–is An American Marriage with Ordinary People. Both are what I’m going to start calling Good Stories. They are engaging while you’re reading them, they tell a story well, and they don’t achieve much more. They’re not even reaching for much more; sure, An American Marriage glances at the iniquities of the prison-industrial complex and Ordinary People weaves in musings on parenthood’s relationship to feminism (mind you, Ordinary People was the book that finally made me think, “Well, if marriage and children habitually fucks up people’s love for each other this badly, why does anyone bother doing it?”), but that’s not really the beating heart of either of those books. They’re both, quite simply, stories about a specific marriage (or pair of marriages) and what makes them fail. Of the two, Ordinary People is bolder: Evans suggests that a happy ending might look like the opposite, which is an idea that mainstream fiction hasn’t much explored. But it is still neither stylistically impressive enough, nor ambitious enough, content-wise, to justify its inclusion here given some of the other longlisters. (The Pisces, for instance, is also a book that challenges the conception of “happy endings”, “women’s fiction”, and the romance narrative, in a manner precisely aligned with the Women’s Prize stated aims, and in more slyly intellectual terms, and it pushes that challenge much further than Ordinary People deigns to.)

The last two on the shortlist, Milkman and My Sister the Serial Killer, don’t make a natural pair, which is actually something of a relief given the irritating symmetry of the rest of the bunch. Milkman, plainly, deserves to be here: it’s a bold, innovative, dryly funny, relentlessly stylistic piece of writing, absolutely one of the best six novels by women written over the past year. Its inclusion is hardly controversial, however, given that it has already won the Anglophone world’s most prestigious literary prize; I am not inclined to give the judging panel any credit for recognizing its brilliance. My Sister the Serial Killer is the novel on this shortlist about which I have the least to say, for the simple reason that I read the first few chapters and found myself so profoundly unmoved by it (which is another way of saying “bored”) that I put it down unfinished. In one sense, I feel like I can’t talk about it because I haven’t finished it, but in another sense,  the fact that its supposedly shocking premise left me cold says everything.

Which brings me to the expression of a niggling doubt that has been growing in my mind for the past few years, primarily with regards to the Women’s Prize, but extendable to panel-judged literary prizes in general: who are the people choosing these books? Why are they making decisions like this? If they are not making their judgments based on quality of writing and/or ambition, what criteria are they prioritizing and why? And (whisper it) is it possible that there is a problem with the panel selection process? Because, no, you don’t need any particular qualifications to read (apart from the ability to do so), and you don’t need any qualifications even to form an opinion–everyone who reads is entitled to have thoughts and feelings about books. But an opinion is one thing: it can be formed in a moment, with little space for context. A judgment is something else: you have to come to it, usually by a process of comparison and analysis, and to have any facility at that, you need to practice. Judging a literary prize is immense hard work; for big ones, hundreds of titles are submitted. To assess and compare and keep in your head the details, merits, and weaknesses of, let’s say, two hundred titles requires the people who engage in it to have had a certain level of practice. And I’m not confident that present-day judging panels contain people who have had a lot of practice. The Women’s Prize panel usually contains some mix of broadcasters, professional novelists, and Public Women (high-profile and nebulous, presumably because they have name recognition and bring their own followers; I’m not saying these aren’t media-savvy decisions). I don’t doubt for a minute that all of them are intelligent and well-read. What they’re noticeably not–generally–is prolific critics. Maybe that’s a good thing; opening up the academy usually is. But then you get a shortlist like this and you have to ask, again: if the most elegantly written and thematically bold books aren’t to be rewarded, what possible criteria can the panel be using? And what exactly is the value of this, or any, prize?


A 100% Objectively Correct Alternate-Universe Shortlist:

  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Pisces, by Melissa Broder
  • Circe, by Madeline Miller
  • Milkman, by Anna Burns
  • Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

If you got this far, come argue with me (or commiserate vociferously) in the comments.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

A Monthly Book, #4: The Last Chronicle of Barset

41nzby01bgl._sx324_bo1204203200_

The Last Chronicle of Barset is a) 900 pages long in this edition, and b) the culmination of a highly involved and interconnected six-book series, Anthony Trollope’s nineteenth-century Chronicles of Barsetshire. Consequently, I am not confident that a standard review–even one that goes into great thematic detail–will be of much use to most of the people likely to read this post. Instead, I’d like to take a leaf out of the books of some other reviewers I rate (primarily Abigail Nussbaum) and simply make a few comments on the book, which might be more helpful for determining whether it’s the sort of thing you’d like to read.

  • It is just about possible to read this as a standalone novel. Trollope understands human attention spans, and he seeds enough plot reminders from his earlier Barsetshire books for the purposes of basic comprehension. Nevertheless, there are so many recurring characters, and such a large portion of their relationships with each other are callbacks to earlier interactions in the series, that it’s worth having read at least one or two of the preceding books. The catalyst of the plot in this volume is the supposed theft of a cheque by the principled and intelligent, but highly difficult, clergyman Josiah Crawley. Crawley’s guilt or innocence is the talk of the county, which allows Trollope to bring in most of the major characters from the past five books, in the guise of providing an overview of general society’s opinion. Crawley also has direct relationships, both professional and familial, with many of these characters, and most of the mentioned families are directly interrelated through marriage. Being able to follow these connections not only minimizes confusion, but makes it easier to appreciate the thematic richness of the novel in its relation to the other books in the series. (To take one example: Crawley’s daughter Grace is beloved of Major Grantly, the son of the archdeacon; the archdeacon’s wife is the daughter of Septimus Harding, a former warden of the city’s almshouse, who falls under similar suspicions of financial misconduct in the first book of the series, The Warden.)
  • Many elements of The Last Chronicle of Barset are reconsiderations or echoes of themes found in Framley ParsonageAlthough one of the novel’s subplots concerns the disposal in marriage of Lily Dale, whose disposal in marriage was also the primary plot of the preceding Barsetshire novel, The Small House at Allington, it seems to me that The Last Chronicle of Barset is more interested in developing themes that recall Framley ParsonageFP is not the most interesting of the Barsetshire books, but perhaps it’s better in hindsight. Its subplot consists of a potential “inappropriate” marriage (inappropriate on the grounds of unequal social status and wealth, that is) between Lucy Robarts, sister of a vicar who has run into financial difficulties, and Lord Lufton, her brother’s childhood friend. Lufton’s mother prefers Archdeacon Grantly’s cold but higher-status daughter, Griselda, as a potential daughter-in-law, and Lucy must prove her worth through humility (she won’t agree to marry Lufton until his mother consents) and kindness (she provides charity to, amongst others, Josiah Crawley and his family. Do you see what I mean about the level of connectivity?!) There is an obvious parallel in the dilemma of Josiah’s daughter Grace, who, in The Last Chronicle of Barset, refuses several times to marry a man she loves and who loves her, out of fear that her family’s poverty and the very real possibility that her father will be convicted of a crime will “demean” her intended husband. In fact, there’s even a scene where old Lady Lufton and Archdeacon Grantly talk about the situation, and Lady L gives advice from her personal experience. In the end the archdeacon yields, but it is the passive sweetness, seriousness and “nobility” of Grace Crawley’s bearing that wins him over. She is a Good Girl; he even tells her so, in so many words. It’s this element of Trollope’s female characters that I sometimes struggle with–the use of soft power through manipulation and performative femininity is highly praised, while what might be a more honest use of power, as typified by the aggressive Mrs. Proudie, is vilified.
  • The further subplot involving a high society painter is meant to be comic relief. Personally, I think it fails as comedy because none of the characters introduced in these chapters are in any way sincere. Mrs Dobbs Broughton, the wife of a millionaire, is actually something of a tragic figure: bored and shallow, she engages in little flirtations as a way of making herself feel alive. Conway Dalrymple, the painter, is simultaneously mercenary and dense; he’s clever enough to get into an entanglement, but not clever enough to get out again without having work hard at it. Dobbs Broughton is an unsympathetic drunkard, and Mr Musselboro, Dobbs Broughton’s business partner, is initially introduced as vulgar (though it’s hard to shake the conviction that Trollope paints him thus simply because he’s a money man, a City trader), and subsequently proves himself to be scheming. It’s hard to laugh at the romantic and financial misunderstandings of characters who seem themselves to feel as though they’re merely acting.
  • “Honour” is the key to everyone’s behaviour, and also one of the most frustrating elements of this book for a modern reader. Trollope delights in establishing situations for his characters from which they cannot extricate themselves with both happiness and honour intact, and then creating an escape route, usually through death, money, truth, or all three. In this he is hardly alone–Dickens is notorious for implausible dei ex machina–but for Trollope the motivating factor of a gentleman, or a lady, is the maintenance of honour, and honour frequently requires misery. In some characters, an adherence to honour is their defining good quality: Grace’s refusal to injure a man she loves by marrying him is a twisty piece of logic for a twenty-first century reader to follow, but every character in the book approves of her for it (even those who think she should marry her lover anyway), and the narrating voice certainly never censures her for her decision. Where Trollope does like to complicate the honour ethos is through characters whose actions negatively affect others, not just themselves. Josiah Crawley refuses many kindnesses from friends and neighbours out of a sense of honour, among them the use of a horse to get to Barchester and deliveries of fresh food from Framley Parsonage. What this means, in effect, is that the strain of maintaining good relations in the community–as well as the strain of being able to feed and clothe a large and possibly disgraced family on a small income–falls to his wife. She mostly gets around her husband’s refusals, and accepts the assistance that is offered them, but she is forced to do so, to some degree, behind his back, which presents another moral difficulty in a society where wives (not least clergymen’s wives) are to be subordinate to their husband’s wishes. Trollope is a true believer in honour, I think; his good characters are good in part because the moral standards they choose are utterly inflexible. But he is also a subtle enough thinker, and writer, to understand that an honour society is one that often values appearances over the possibility of human suffering. The fact that he wrestles with that is one of the things I prize most about his writing.

Reading Diary: Apr. 16-Apr. 22

9780241349199The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins: Frannie, a Jamaican servant in 1820s London, is writing her life history while awaiting trial for the murder of her employers. Part of that history explains her literacy, and the horrifying purpose for which her earlier master in Jamaica educated her. Unfortunately, while we are expected to understand that Frannie has been traumatized by more than the general experience of slavery, Collins doesn’t clarify until the book is very far advanced. The theory behind this decision is clear—Frannie mentions how little white people are interested in the stories of black people unless they are stories of suffering, and Collins chooses to elide the specifics of her protagonist’s suffering to prove the point—but it means the reader is asked for a high level of emotional investment more or less on trust, which is manipulative without being satisfying. I didn’t find the sexual relationship between Frannie and her mistress especially convincing, either. It’s a solid historical crime novel, but not the explosive debut it’s been touted as.

42270835The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: Inspired by recent revelations about the crimes and abuse that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform facility operated by the state of Florida between 1900 and 2011. (It was in the news again last week. TW in the linked article for abuse and murder of children.) Whitehead skilfully uses that cruelty, and the racism that motivates it, to illuminate the conundrum of being black in general. Elwood Curtis, a clever boy who dreams of participating in Civil Rights marches and was due to attend college-level classes in his junior year of high school, must decide whether survival or resistance is more important: his choice inside the institution is the same one that his grandmother has been forced to make on the outside, in an equally corrupt and violent society. The final twist of the plot is perhaps unsurprising, but breathtaking. This, I think–pace Sara Collins’s novel, above–is how to detail suffering without rendering it pornographic. Out in August.

51qboo1lw9l._sx340_bo1204203200_Beneath the World, a Sea, by Chris Beckett: Unlike Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, Beneath the World… is set on Earth, but a weird version thereof, containing a South American region called the Submundo populated by descendants of slaves as well as by humanoid creatures called duendes. These have a disturbing psychic effect on humans when they get too close, and are ritually hunted by the Mundinos, but the UN has now classified duendes as “people” and sent Ben Ronson, a policeman specializing in culturally sensitive crimes, to try and stop the killings. Beckett plays with ideas of the subconscious (allegorized, not terribly subtly, by the Submundo’s underground sea) and of conventional morality (what did the ordinarily buttoned-up Ronson do in the Zona, an area that disappears from a traveler’s memory as soon as they’ve left?) But these ideas are hardly virgin ground; a more interesting and original novel might have resulted from a closer focus on how “personhood” is defined when the subject is clearly organic (as opposed to the more familiar fictional arguments over robot personhood), and on the ramifications of the Submundo’s colonial history.

Currently reading: The Last Chronicle of Barset, the final novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, dealing with Victorian religious and secular politics in a fictitious English county.

Reading Diary: Apr. 9-Apr. 15

40985726The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell: Phwoaarr. Comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Mitchell are just. Follows three generations of Zambian families, exploring how chance, genetics, and politics draw them together and fling them apart. Family trees are provided at the beginning of the book, but the structure is less a straight line and more a series of looping ellipses, as characters appear and reappear. Encompassing interracial marriage, Zambian independence, Marxism, Afronauts, hair, microtechnology, HIV/AIDS, and social media activism, The Old Drift is an ambitious and emotionally compelling masterpiece. Serpell writes like someone who’s been doing this for decades.

original_400_600Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me, by Kate Clanchy: A memoir of teaching at Oxford Spires Academy, where Clanchy runs a phenomenally successful Poetry Group (they’ve won numerous Foyle’s Young Poet awards). She also writes about her time at schools in post-industrial Essex and Scotland, and multicultural London. Clanchy demonstrates how infuriating and patronizing are government decisions re. teaching, a profession of which most of our legislators know nothing, and she’s magnificent on how creative response to literature can ignite a student’s mind–but is tragically ignored now in most schools because it cannot be quantified in a WALT (We Are Learning To…)

51agaxplvnl._sx324_bo1204203200_My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell: My fourth-grade teacher read this aloud to us, and I was instantly enchanted, not just by Durrell’s idyllic childhood on the Greek island of Corfu (all that time to explore, all those hours in which to lie still and just observe), but by his charmingly absurd family: aspiring novelist Larry (aka Lawrence Durrell), gun-mad Leslie, dippy Margo, and long-suffering Mother. Rereading it as an adult, the most immediately striking thing about it is the sheer richness of Durrell’s prose: he’s interested in colour, texture and sound, the “squeak and clop” of oars digging into a silver-blue sea, the noise of cicadas in the cypress trees.

41mnd2bzqu5l._sx320_bo1204203200_The Perfect Wife, by JP Delaney: Lots to say about this psychological thriller with a technological twist, which–like Delaney’s two other psychological novels–has been marketed according to genre rules while sneaking in a high level of literary sophistication, allusion, and experimentation under the radar. Told alternately from the points of view of “Abbie”, a robot powered by artificial intelligence whose builder has designed her to look exactly like his missing-presumed-dead wife, and a third-person plural voice that represents her husband’s employees, a group of Silicon Valley nerds. It’s not perfect: there are several major reveals at the end, one of which is left hanging; Delaney makes stabs at illustrating the machinic nature of Abbie’s mind, but her thought is articulated in a way less linear and logical than any AI would ever be. Still, he admits in his acknowledgments that he didn’t set out to write a techno-thriller, and there’s plenty to unpack here, probably in a longer post soon.

98665Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versaillesby Kathryn Lasky: Another in the Royal Diaries series. Particularly notable is the recreation both of young Archduchess Antonia’s personality–fun-loving and kind, but not especially intellectual–and of Empress Maria Theresa’s relationships with her thirteen children, whom she clearly loved in her own way but each of whom was merely a pawn in the Holy Roman Empire’s consolidation and expansion. Lasky renders the young Antonia relatable and even sympathetic, though also motivated by principles that we no longer really recognize: the honour of an Empire, the pride of nobility.

Currently reading: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, a debut about a Jamaican servant woman accused of killing her mistress in 1820s London.

Reading Diary: Apr. 2-Apr.8

71tzk8kcqplFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi: Exploring the Nigerian tradition of possession by spirit children (ọgbanje), Freshwater achieves its remarkable sense of, well, freshness, by resolutely avoiding mysticism. Ada’s possession by multiple shadowy presences–two of whom develop distinct personalities: the predatory Asughara, who manifests after a sexual assault in college and who “stands in front” of Ada’s psyche in all of her dealings with men, and the gentle, masculine-presenting Saint Vincent–is presented as spiritual fact. Although Ada’s American friends treat her as though she is mentally ill, Emezi raises the possibility that what afflicts her is not nearly as clear-cut, and that Western psychology is of limited use when coping with gods. Engrossing, disturbing, and well deserving its place on the Women’s Prize longlist.

imageThe Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun: For the first third of this slim German novella, I was getting shades of, of all things, Cassandra Mortmain from I Capture the Castle: that same insouciant cheerfulness, the same pithy, suspiciously innocent one-liners. Doris is young, good-looking and on the make. Her small provincial town can’t hold her, and after going through as many of the local men as she can, she heads off to Berlin, hoping to “become a star”. Her story goes to some significantly darker places than Cassandra’s, though Keun never allows Doris to entirely lose her witty, devil-may-care attitude, even if it ends up buried under the weight of disillusionment. Contains insights of real brilliance into the nature of human relationships, and Keun’s own life story is incredible. I’ll seek out more by her.

38720267Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn: Possibly the shortest book in contention for the Women’s Prize this year, van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash uses its bantamweight to its advantage. The story of Alina’s and Liviu’s marriage, and the strain it’s put under when Liviu’s brother defects and the Romanian secret services begin a merciless program of harassment against the couple, its most graphic and terrifying moments last no longer than three or four pages and have greater impact as a result. The opening chapter establishes an expectation of magical realism (Alina’s grandfather, apparently “shrunk” by his wife to keep him safe from the State, has spent years living in a bird cage) that has long been a staple of writing about life under a totalitarian regime, but van Llewyn’s brevity keeps it fresh and new.

queenie-9781501196010_hrQueenie, by Candice Carty-Williams: This has been billed as “the black Bridget Jones”, which is a dynamite comparison, although the idea of a book being “the black version” of another book is uncool. Queenie Jenkins’s relationship with a white man, Tom, has just imploded. (They’re “on a break”.) The novel traces Queenie’s fall–sex with men who hurt her, panic attacks, eviction–and her rise: going to therapy despite her family’s horror, accepting the love of her friends, sassy Kyazike (“Chess. Keh.”) and poshly befuddled Darcy, and slowly coming to terms with her difficult childhood. The writing is less effortless and the shape of the story less subversive than Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, but it’s a deeply relatable novel about a young woman trying to make her own way in a world that doesn’t value her as it should.

Currently reading: Namwali Serpell’s epic multi-generational novel of Zambian families, The Old Drift. It’s scarily good.

Reading Diary: Mar. 26-Apr. 1

rumblestar-9781471173660_lgRumblestar, by Abi Elphinstone: A novella prequel, Everdark, was written for World Book Day, and perhaps I’d have gotten on a bit better with Rumblestar if I’d read that first. My problems, though, weren’t with confusing plot or unfamiliar characters. Rather the opposite: it sort of felt as though I’d read this story before. Or parts of it in different places. There’s a weedy, wimpy boy; a tough, wisecracking girl; a magical kingdom; an untrustworthy authority figure; an adventure through the very conveniently discrete segments of said kingdom; and some emotional development. It’s all fine as far as it goes, but the emotional development, in particular, is very signposted. And it can’t be good that my favourite part (the drizzle hags, if you’re wondering) felt like they’d have been better if Terry Pratchett had written them…

9780300180282Arabs, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith: An excellent, and enormous (536 pages plus end matter), history of the Arab people (whatever that means; as Mackintosh-Smith shows, the definition is far from clear), from pre-Islamic times right up to the present day. He makes an important distinction between “Arab” and “Muslim”; not all of the former are the latter, and vice versa, although the global spread of Arabs and Arab-ness is due in large part to Islam and the empire won and enjoyed by early caliphs. Mostly, Mackintosh-Smith says, Arabs are defined by their use of the Arabic language. He’s a wonderful guide to it: wry, witty, widely read, and keenly alive to subtleties of dialect and register. One has to make an initial effort with this book, but it turns out delightfully readable, and obviously seminal.

Currently reading: Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, as part of my Women’s Prize longlist reading. It is so far extremely good.