2018 judges, from left to right: Imogen Stubbs trained at RADA and gained a 1st in English at Oxford; Katy Brand is an award winning writer, comedian and actor; Catherine Mayer is the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party; Sarah Sands is the editor of ‘The Today Programme’ and Anita Anand is a radio and tv journalist.

Admire, Be Inspired, and Enjoy

1st June 2018

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of the most respected and successful literary awards in the world. It celebrates the very best full length fiction written by women and is open to any novel, written in English, by a woman of any nationality. Here we review the eclectic shortlist, released in April, ahead of the announcement of the overall winner, next Wednesday: 6 June.

Its inception stems from a meeting back in January 1992, when a diverse group of journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers – male and female – gathered together in a flat in London. The Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 had included no women at all – something which had escaped notice until the press commented on it – and the group decided to meet to talk about it: did it matter that there were no novels by women? If so, what could or should be done? The result was a new kind of literary prize where judges are asked to forget about reviews, publicity spends, an author’s previous reputation, the sense of ‘who deserves it’ and choose simply on the basis of female writing that inspires them, moves them, makes them think – and that they admire and enjoy!

The Idiot: Elif Batuman
Vintage | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Might Selin be one of the most likeable characters in literature? We meet this clever, curious and amusing 18-year-old Turkish protagonist as she starts America’s prestigious Harvard University. It’s the mid-90s and email is a brand new concept. (“You’ll be so fancy sending your emails,” her aunt tells her.) And so through the prism of conversations with her new friends, through internal ruminations and through this newfangled medium, we follow Selin as she navigates her new life – attempting to construct a grown-up and self-assured identity along the way, with varying degrees of success.

Hoping to be a writer, she takes pleasure in noting the unusual and the absurd, and her arch observations are hilarious in both their naïveté and their intelligence. Batuman is spot on in giving her that oh-so-familiar adolescent combination of wisdom and utter cluelessness, especially when it comes to the handsome Hungarian mathematician Ivan, whom Selin meets in her Russian-for-beginners class.

There are some other great characters, including the extravagant and self-absorbed Svetlana (“I’m more complicated… Some people are just more complicated than others, don’t you think?”) that add weight and extra dimension to this slow-paced, cerebral read. It demands patience, but ultimately is well worth the investment in time.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock: Imogen Hermes Gowar
Harvill Secker | reviewed by Jill Glenn

This is an impressive novel by any standards: substantial in both length and breadth, with a cast of richly drawn characters, an absorbing narrative and a clever nod to magical realism. That it’s Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut makes it even more remarkable.

It’s 1785. Merchant Jonah Hancock answers the door one dark evening to discover that one of his sea captains has sold his ship for what appears to be a mermaid. Hancock – widowed, lonely, straightforward – finds himself obliged to display the creature in London coffee houses, charging for entry, to recoup his financial losses. He is very much out his depth in the sort of high society he could have barely imagined, and when (unexpectedly lascivious) circumstances throw him together with failing courtesan Angelica Neal, life as he knows it will never be the same. Trite? Inevitable? Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a book about desire, and self-belief, and self-awareness. Gowar’s writing is energetic, and she has wonderful attention both to physical and emotional detail and to the circumstances that constrain lives: class, race, financial situation, gender and marital status. With marvellous lightness of touch she gets inside heads, has the courage to let characters make their own destiny and even allows some loose ends never to be fully gathered together. City life at its most realistic.

Sight: Jessie Greengrass
John Murray | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

This is a moving and contemplative account of a woman’s life as she grieves for a mother lost at the cusp of adulthood, and her journey towards becoming a wife and mother herself. ‘To fill the space that even grief refused to occupy, I read, at first indiscriminately and widely… [until]… I began at last to reconstruct myself.’

The deeply reflective snippets of her life that she relays are interwoven with fragments of medical history that have significance to her life now. While taking photos of her child, she writes about the Lumière brothers’ first cinematographic films in 1895, for example, and while describing summers spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother she called Doctor K, we learn about Freud. This transition between historical fact and introspective fiction is unusual, but original and illuminating, and she handles it deftly.

The habit of self-analysis she learns from her grandmother continues throughout her life and forms the essence of the novel – one that’s extremely intelligently written, and has an affecting ponderous and languorous atmosphere – but my reservation is that when spending so much time in a protagonist’s head, it’s very important to like them. While I feel sympathy initially, this becomes tinged with frustration as her life moves forward more positively. With an adoring husband by her side and much-wanted babies in life, her continuing joylessness becomes a little tedious.

When I Hit You: Meena Kandasamy
Atlantic Books | reviewed by Jill Glenn

If you’ve ever heard about someone in an abusive relationship – a friend, a neighbour, a celebrity – and wondered ‘why didn’t she just leave?’, this is a book that might begin to deliver an answer.

Set in Mangalore on the south west coast of India,When I Hit You is a candid, semi-autobiographical account of a short marriage to a clever and vicious man, as experienced by an intelligent young writer. It is intimate and personal, of course – a graphic sharing of one marriage, one relationship – but it is impossible not to extrapolate universal experience. The unnamed narrator is just the sort of woman to whom domestic violence wouldn’t happen, just the sort of woman who wouldn’t become isolated or ground down or accustomed. You’d think.

Her account is eloquently analytical but uncompromising in its rawness; her husband is a man who turns coercive control into an art form, so twisted and plausible that even as you draw back from the appalling nature of the brutality he metes out, you are almost persuaded of his reasoning.

When I Hit You is tightly, elegantly written. Anger – justifiable anger – pulses through it, as it addresses history and literature, politics and society, gender relations and family pressures. It is by no means an easy read, but it’s truly a worthwhile one… although not for the faint-hearted.

Home Fire: Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury Circus | reviewed by Lisa Botwright

Previously nominated for the Man Booker and Costa prizes, among others, this book has been showered with plaudits and it’s easy to see why. It’s powerful page-turner of a novel that explores all the big themes of love, sex, religion and divided loyalties.

Isma travels to the US to accept an academic fellowship with the blessing of her younger sister, Aneeka, whom she’s raised following their mother and father’s death. Their brother Parvais, Aneeka’s twin, has been radicalised, and has disappeared to Pakistan to fight for ISIS – to the anger of Isma and the devastation of Aneeka. Then Isma meets Eamonn Lone, the son of the British Home Secretary, and a friendship tentatively begins, despite their differences in family life: Eamonn’s rich and privileged upbringing versus Isma’s working class roots in Wembley; Eamonn’s politically
ambitious father representing the voice of moderate Islam in contrast to Isma’s conservative demeanour and family links to jihadism.

The novel is split loosely into three parts, observing Isma, Eamonn and Parvais’ stories in turn, until the final tragic climax.

It’s a brave and powerful novel that forces us to confront comforting and easily-held prejudices, and to re-examine what it means to hold British values. It’s also a mark of Shamsie’s brilliance that we engage and sympathise with the light and shade of all the characters, even the darkest.

Sing, Unburied, Sing: Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury | reviewed by Jill Glenn

Jesmyn Ward deals with unpalatable truths in this powerful tale of a dysfunctional, drug-ridden family, scratching a living together on the Mississippi Gulf coast. It’s a hard read, but a wonderful one.

Our hero is 13-year-old Jojo, son of a black mother and a white father, raised mostly by his black grandparents who provide love and sustenance in the face of emotional and actual deprivation. In turn he parents his toddler sister Kayla with a poignant devotion. ‘I like to think I know what death is,’ Jojo says, and it’s more than an idle boast. Death and the shadow of death are never far away.

This is a story of poverty and brutality, grief and loss, abuse and addiction, discrimination and injustice. And ghosts. Both Jojo and his mother (whom he calls by her first name, Leonie, because she ‘ain’t got the mothering instinct’) see spirits. In fact, sections of the book are narrated by one of the ghosts: an approach that requires a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but which is worth the effort, because of the captivating quality of the writing.

Central to the book is a sly twist on a classic road trip: Leonie taking ‘the kids’ to collect their father from prison. Ward pays attention to all the dirty realities of this grim journey [emetophobes beware] and its sad, predictable outcomes. It’s a superb critique of what Margaret Atwood calls ‘the not-buried heart of the American nightmare.’

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