Batman's Guide to the Women's Prize for Fiction

Posted on May 9, 2018 in Oxford

Being a dog who is passionate about reading, I was very excited when this year’s Women’s Prize for fiction was announced! I wasn’t surprised to see that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman had made the longlist, but I was shocked that it didn’t make the shortlist. This debut novel was my favourite read of last year, and seems to be in every bookshop window I pass on my walks these days. It’s been lauded as being responsible in the recent trend for uplifting literature which there is a definite need for these days. Eleanor was unusual and endearing. I enjoyed getting to know her, and was riveted as her backstory unfolded, and as she navigated her social awkwardness and began to make changes in her routine life. I wolfed it down in two days. Even though it didn’t make the shortlist, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this book.
I was also excited to see Kit de Waal on the list, having loved her debut novel, My Name is Leon, which was published in 2016. The Trick to Time was a very different book, but all of de Waal’s storytelling skills and her knack of getting to the heart of her characters was as much in evidence in this latest offering as it was in her first book. This was a quiet book but beautifully woven and with several surprises to offer. As Mona approaches her sixtieth birthday, she is living alone in England where she runs a handmade doll shop. As she repurposes old clothes and knickknacks which she unearths in charity shops to make unique outfits for the dolls, she reflects on her childhood in Ireland, and her relationship with William, with whom she moved to England decades before.
The shortlist was announced on April 23rd, and consists of Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing,  Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Mena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You,  and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight.  It’s a really interesting mix. Sight is a debut novel, as is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. The authors of each of the other books have published at least one other novel apiece.
Of these, I had only heard of Sing Unburied Sing, and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock before the list was announced. BookRiot have been singing the praises of Sing Unburied Sing (pun intended) for months now, and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has been getting a lot of press, including in The Bookseller.
Jesmyn Ward is no stranger to prestigious prizes, having won the 2011 National Book Award for Salvage the Bones. This latest book is a ghost story which was a bit too scary for young dogs, opening with a graphic scene of the protagonist, thirteen year old Jojo, watching his Pop butchering a pig, but none the less tells a powerful and unflinching story of Black American history. If you enjoy a good family drama you won’t want to miss this literary and compelling book.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is an unusual book, providing a strong example of skilful storytelling. You can see the influence of Angela Carter, without feeling this is derivative.  It offers a fantastic blend of history and magical realism, and considers advertising versus exploitation, what is real versus what is presented to us as reality.
I am keen to get my paws on Home Fire. Shamsie’s seventh novel is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, which was previously tackled masterfully by Seamus Heaney in The Burial at Thebes. Shamsie’s version is set in the modern day, and was longlisted for 2017’s Booker prize. I love reimaginings of classical texts and am eager to see how Shamsie takes on the story.
The Idiot is another exciting read, by Elif Bautman of The New Yorker.  This is a more romantic, light hearted finalist than the others and it’s really nice to see this kind of variety on the short list. It follows Selin as she begins her Harvard education, befriends Svetlana, and swoons over Ivan. The story moves between the US and Hungary, and delves into use of language, and the writing life.
Sight is Jessie Greengrass’s first novel, though she has previously won awards for her short story collections. It follows a nameless woman as she prepares for the birth of her second child, and reflects on her mother’s death, her relationship with her grandmother, and the birth of her first child, all of which is woven through seamlessly with the development of psychoanalysis.  A fascinating portrayal of motherhood and pregnancy.
When I Hit You, subtitled A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife also focuses on the writing life, though in a much more volatile setting than The Idiot. A young woman marries a university professor but the relationship soon becomes abusive.  A harrowing and important read which addresses toxic masculinity.
And that’s my take! I’m off to take my walk. Happy reading everyone! Look out for the winner announcement on June 6th! I’d make a prediction but that’s a lot to ask of a small dog!