Weather by Jenny Offill review

I’m now officially halfway through the Women’s Prize shortlist as I complete my third book: Weather by Jenny Offill. Our narrator is Lizzie Benson, who lives in New York with her husband and son, and works as a librarian after quitting her postgraduate degree. Much to Lizzie’s relief, her drug-addicted brother Henry seems to be on the mend and has begun a new relationship. One day her old mentor and famous podcaster Sylvia employs her to answer Sylvia’s emails. From there Lizzie is drawn into the anxieties and concerns of others which, in turn, has an effect on her own life.

Out of all the nominees on the shortlist, Weather feels the most immediate. Offill tackles topics such as global warming, the refugee crisis, and the 2016 presidential election amongst others. This makes the book feel urgent and timely: it is hard not to see the relevance in it, and it will be interesting how the book is received over the years as a result of this. Yet whilst Offill mentions these topics, her main strength is discussing how people react to them. She excels at capturing the anxiety and fear for the future, plus the confused and numb state over what is happening in the present. The massive themes themselves almost fade into the background; Offill seems to focus on more how people feel, which ultimately helps to make Weather more personal and intimate.

This is also achieved through the book’s narrative structure. It is told purely from Lizzie’s perspective and is essentially a collection of vignettes. At moments it feels like you are reading someone’s diary as they detail snippets of their life and their thoughts. It helped make Lizzie a sympathetic character, understanding her own anxieties about her family’s future. Through Lizzie Offill also makes plenty of witty observations about society, some of which were painfully accurate. So in Weather there is this delicate balance between the heavy-hitting subjects, the personal connection, and a streak of humour which Offill juggles throughout and does so well. Yet the heart of the book for me was the relationship between Lizzie and Henry. It was equal parts heart-warming and frustrating to read, each character having their own flaws and struggling to overcome them. A book purely dedicated to them would be a joy.

Yet there were things in Weather that just didn’t work. The sheer amount of quotations for example. Snippets are taken from speeches, articles from quarterlies, literature, and even jokes are referenced. Offill throws out quotations like Oprah hands out cars. But some of them didn’t work. Others did; some cleverly acted as segues into the next vignette but plenty more I struggled to understand why they were there. I simply couldn’t see the connection between the quote and the passages surrounding it. And whilst I understand that as a librarian, Lizzie has access to a lot of information so quotations are in-keeping with her character, the sheer volume of them was exhausting. Given that my edition of Weather is only 200 pages, it did seem excessive.

Another aspect I had problems with was the secondary characters. At the beginning I struggled to differentiate between Ben and Eli, Lizzie’s husband and son, and found them interchangeable: as time goes by, I can see myself completely forgetting about them. Also the only reason I know Lizzie’s mother is ‘God haunted’ is because the blurb tells me. In the book she simply appears to be a woman who actively participates in her church; there was never any sense of angst or worry on her part that I could discern. Whilst this is a minor criticism – and is more my own problem than the author’s – just be wary that the blurb might not be entirely accurate.

Would I recommend Weather? I don’t know. It isn’t a bad book, not at all. Offill is a very thoughtful, observant writer and a lot of novel is beautifully written. There were just moments the book was far too clever for its own good. By sampling all these different sources, it became bogged down so much I began to lose interest. There felt like there were important points being made with those quotes, but I just couldn’t see them. And whilst I did enjoy the character of Lizzie, the others were never particularly memorable. I can see why people love or hate Weather; for me it is just ‘OK’.

Weather is published by Granta and you can find more information here

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo review

Warning: there will be slight spoilers in this review which deal with disturbing subjects.

I’m probably the very last book blog to review Girl, Woman, Other but I have finally read it! Given the hype this book has had I’m sure everyone knows what this is about: twelve interconnected stories following twelve (mainly) black (mainly) women living in the UK. Through their eyes a story of  the nation is seen.

The stories are told through a stream of consciousness, which at points almost reads like poetry. It has a very lyrical quality to it and there were many passages that were beautifully written. This method also allows Evaristo to explore the characters more in depth, to capture their personalities which really allows the readers understand these people and their lives. Yet, whilst Evaristo deals with the small, personal things, she also tackles the UK at large, highlighting the experiences women of colour across decades. She delicately and effortlessly weaves both the personal and the political into the narrative. How the women interconnect throughout was also brilliantly done. It was fun to see characters reappear in other stories, and seeing events from multiple perspectives. The last two chapters were also excellent in wrapping up these women’s stories and created a satisfying conclusion.

Yet I did have some issues with the book. The most pertinent one is how Evaristo tackles some hard-hitting topics. One woman is gang-raped when a teenager, and another suffers from drug addiction. It is uplifting to see these women overcome their struggles and rise up and succeed, despite the hardships they suffered. And I understand that there are pivotal moments that make people change their lives for the better. But these topics are mentioned so briefly that it seems as though Evaristo is merely dismissing them. For example, the drug addiction and recovery is resolved in less than 3 pages, and the character beats her addiction whilst her family is on holiday. Really? Someone manages to curb their addiction within a month (we’re never told how long her parents away so could be less) with no help from anyone? It felt throwaway, as though Evaristo wanted this character to suffer, decided upon drug addiction but quickly abandoned it in favour of moving the plot forward. Rape was also dealt similarly to this. For such serious subjects, they’re dealt with so fleetingly I wondered if they were truly necessary. Those scenes and how they were handled left me with an unpleasant taste.

A slightly lesser criticism is that some of the characters sounded identical to one another. As mentioned before, the stream of consciousness was a really effective technique, but a lot of the word choice and the flow of the language were similar across the stories. This made the characters seem less individual and blurred into one. If the names hadn’t been repeated throughout, I probably would have struggled to remember who the narrator was. I should point out that this doesn’t apply to all of the characters, some personalities truly shone through just sadly others faltered.

It is obvious why Girl, Woman, Other has achieved the enormous success and critical acclaim it has. How Evaristo has constructed the novel is brilliantly done, and she manages to encapsulate the black, female experience living in Britain really well. There were just some things that irked me in the narrative which stopped me from completely loving the book. Some of the subjects brought up were not dealt with sufficiently; the drug abuse still baffles me. If you’re going to deal with serious topics, then perhaps give them more than two pages in the book. Plus some of the voices could have been stronger. Overall I did like Girl, Woman, Other but don’t love it as much as others.

Girl, Woman, Other is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee review

Jing-Jing Lee’s debut How We Disappeared opens with one of the main characters Wang Di reflecting on the different stories about her birth. This opening segment highlights one of the main themes of the book; this notion of storytelling, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other. That events may be viewed differently depending on who is telling the narrative. This is also seen through the other main character, twelve year old Kevin who has set out on a mission to discover the secret his grandmother has hid for decades.

Lee tackles the idea of storytelling with aplomb, not only inscribing it to individuals but societies as a whole. We witness how Wang Di is treated after the Second World War has ended and how she is treated in a complex designed for the elderly later in life; both timelines serve to show societal attitudes towards women like Wang Di, how a narrative is written against them. Yet as a reader we also see the horror Wang Di suffered during wartime and her experiences afterwards. This makes the novel tragic; seeing how individuals are misunderstood by their community. Lee handles this topic with great care, and it is woven into the plot so well that the reader never feels the author is condescending.

Lee also handles the isolation and loneliness associated with this excellently; her treatment of mental health is sensitive and delicately handled yet equally doesn’t shy away from darker moments. The chapters regarding Wang Di’s suffering during the war is similar to this. There are passages which are beautifully written, and use some fascinating imagery, yet Lee evocatively recreates wartime Singapore, without hiding all the horrors that happened. It is a difficult balance to find; trying not to sensationalise warfare whilst not downplaying it, and Lee succeeds in this.

The characters themselves are also well-developed. Wang Di is such a tragic yet stoic figure that you can really sympathise with her. Watching how she copes through traumatic events, and how her character changes was saddening to read but also compulsive. You wanted to keep reading on; you wanted to see her happy. Kevin as well had a great character arc, and seeing him grow up was a delight. Comparisons can be made between his childhood and Wang Di’s – not only due to different timeframes but their gender  – and Lee flits between them effortlessly, letting the reader make those comparisons. Throughout the whole novel, she never overexplains and simply lets the reader come to their own conclusions

I was sad to hear How We Disappeared didn’t make the shortlist yet not surprised. It isn’t a particularly experimental novel and despite the time-jumping between the 1940s and 2000s, it is a fairly straight-forward story. Yet this never bothered me; I was swept up by the characters and the language and the sheer effective of the structure. Singapore in the 1940s isn’t a topic I’m familiar with and this novel has spurred me to discover more. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy How We Disappeared; it is also a timely reminder why we shouldn’t let voices and stories from the past simply fade away.

How We Disappeared is published by Oneworld and you can find more information here.

Thoughts on the Women’s Prize longlist so far

In two weeks time we will already know the shortlist for the Women’s Prize 2020, as it will be announced on Wednesday 22nd April. I thought I would have a quick catch-up before then, recapping all the books I’ve read on the longlist so far, my thoughts on the list in general, and whether any of my read books will make the shortlist.

So far I have read 6 books on the longlist. These are:

  •  Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – review
  •  Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – review
  •  Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – review
  •  Girl by Edna O’Brien – review
  •  The Most Fun I Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – review
  •  The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – review 

Also, I am currently reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo and How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. Whilst I’m not confident I will have finished the pair of them by the 22nd, I hope to have read a decent chunk of both of them.

This year has pleasantly surprised me. Out of all of the nominees I’ve read, including the two I’m still working on, there hasn’t been a book I didn’t enjoy. There were issues with some of the titles, yes, but none ever tempted me to DNF it or throw it against the wall like previous years (looking at you, First Love). Even with the weakest book in that list, it had some merit and aspects that I could admire. Of course, there are still 8 books that I haven’t read yet so perhaps the dud is still waiting to be discovered, but at the moment this is shaping up to be a good longlist.

Even though I have only read 6, I have noticed some themes cropping up amongst the nominees. There seems to be an interest in familial dynamics, whether that spans generations (Red at the Bone, The Most Fun We Ever Had) or focuses on a marriage (Most Fun… again and Fleishman is in Trouble). Out of all the ones mentioned, I think Red at the Bone was the most successful in its aim. Also, from what I’ve read Girl, Woman, Other may also fall into this category, as the first three women contain a mother-daughter dynamic. But it is far too early for me to say.

Equally, another topic that keeps cropping up is violence against women or women during wartime. This is prevalent in Girl and How We Disappeared, the first revolving around a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram and the second dealing with a teenager taken by the Japanese during the Second World War. Whilst I haven’t read very much of Lee’s novel, I thought Girl was a shocking but powerful depiction of violence, so it will be interesting to compare. Another book that might fall into that category is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, which tells the Trojan War from the female characters’ perspectives. I am interested to see how she deals with warfare.

I am also interested if the judges take into account the similarities between the books. Last year the judges seemed to pick shortlistees which mirrored each other in plot or theme; The Silence of the Girls and Circe; Ordinary People and eventual winner An American Marriage. I’m curious if this year’s judges will do something similar with their shortlist, or if they will do something completely different. But certainly the parallels between the books seems too apparent to ignore.

So, what books do I think stand a chance of being on the shortlist? I’ve ranked my six read nominees again, this time from most likely to least likely to make the cut:

  • Red at the Bone
  • The Mirror & the Light
  •  Girl
  • Fleishman is in Trouble
  •  The Most Fun We Ever Had
  •  Queenie

I will be surprised if Red at the Bone, The Mirror & the Light, and Girl, Woman, Other do not make the shortlist. The amount of critical acclaim and hype surrounding these books is absurd, so I think people will be shocked if they don’t show up. They seem like the obvious choices for the shortlist. The controversy surrounding Girl I think means its chances have been hampered, and it is unlikely it will make the shortlist. O’Brien is a highly respected and well-liked author though, so maybe she could overcome the criticism. I’m equally unsure of both Fleishman and Most Fun. Red at the Bone dealt with family relationships a lot better than either of them, but as I mentioned, last year’s judges put both Greek retellings on the shortlist. So perhaps this year’s might sneak one or both of these novels in.

Now, I like Queenie. If the list had been my favourite nominees so far, it would have come second behind Red at the Bone. But I can’t see it making the shortlist. I think other books deal with heavier subject matters, in more creative and thought-provoking ways. The writing styles of, say, Woodson and Evaristo are a lot stronger, and are perhaps more experimental in terms of structure. I would be happy to see Queenie make the shortlist, but I do doubt it.

So that is my thoughts on the Women’s Prize 2020 so far. I know the winner will now be announced on 9th September, so I will probably do my thoughts on the shortlist closer to the date. I might also wrap up my thoughts on the longlist as a whole and attempt to choose a winner (I’ve not been right for the past two years so this will be fun!) In the meantime, let me know what your thoughts on the longlist are. Do you have a favourite already? Who do you think will make the shortlist? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

 

 

 

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel review

Having just finished reading The Mirror & the Light this morning after binge reading it over the weekend, I have a lot of feelings about the novel. It is the final part in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, which has charted the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Here the novel opens in May 1536, just as Anne Boleyn is executed and follows Cromwell from his appointments as the Lord Privy Seal and later Lord Great Chamberlain until his own death in 1540.

The Mirror & the Light, very much like its predecessors, is incredibly rich. The writing is  evocative; easily transporting the reader to the King’s court. Mantel manages to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of this world and the reader gets sucked into it all. The opening chapter is the immediate aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, so you are plunged straight into the action and plot is nicely developed throughout the entire novel. The research gone into the whole trilogy is incredible. Whilst Mantel does use creative licence in terms of characterisation, it all feels very authentic and it never strikes a false note. Even small details like what the people at court ate has been researched and carefully rendered.

The slight criticism I have of the writing style is the abundance of foreshadowing. Oh, the foreshadowing. It is apparent from the first couple of chapters and Mantel insists on clobbering her readers with it. It never created a particular atmosphere or feeling; it wasn’t done subtly so rereads would become richer in seeing Cromwell’s fate unfold. Mantel just seemed to be constantly reminding her readers that this is the last in the trilogy and you know Cromwell will die, don’t you? Yes, yes we do. So the foreshadowing feels like a pointless addition, and an irritating one on top of that.

Despite the constant foreshadowing, the main reason I preserved with the novel is due to the characters. All of them are brilliantly drawn, in particular Cromwell himself. He is morally ambiguous and does questionable deeds; but he is so charismatic and witty yet also vulnerable that is hard not to be fascinated by him. He’s an incredibly well-written character, one that has been fully-fleshed over the course of the trilogy, and one that lingers in the mind long after the book finished. Henry VIII has always been an interesting historical figure for me, and here I really enjoyed the scenes with him. When one of his advisors dares to contradict or displeases him, there is a visceral reaction; you know what he is capable of, and the reader is left waiting for when he finally turns against them. Also the fact that you are never really inside his head, you never hear his thoughts apart from what he says, makes him a more threatening and volatile character. The scenes between him and Cromwell, particularly in the latter half of the novel, were excellent.

Before it was even released The Mirror & the Light attracted a lot of hype, and it has also received rave reviews from critics and readers alike. It is certainly obvious why, Mantel’s writing and characterisation are for the most part brilliant. Certainly the whole trilogy has been executed (no pun intended) amazingly. Yet, I am inclined to agree with The New Yorker review which called the novel ‘bloated’. With hindsight there were segments which could have been shortened or removed altogether. But both this and my gripes about the use of foreshadowing are only minor; yet they do make me reluctant to reread the novel. Will it make the Women’s Prize shortlist later this month? I think it has a very good chance.

The Mirror & the Light is published by 4th Estate and you can find more information here

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo review

Claire Lombardo’s debut novel The Most Fun We Ever Had follows the lives of the Sorenson family. The novel opens at elder daughter Wendy’s wedding in her parent’s garden, and then quickly flashes both backwards and forwards, going from 1975 to 2016. We see how Marilyn and David met, their daughters being born, and how the girls’ lives unfold throughout the years.

The characters are well-fleshed out, and the chapters are shown through multiple perspectives which allows their personalities to shine through. The numerous voices also means that events are seen from different angles, so the reader understands the emotion and actions of each person involved, and where characters misunderstand one another. It helps to make the Sorensons more sympathetic, as certainly some of their choices could appear baffling otherwise. Yet it felt as though Lombardo focussed more on certain characters than others. For example, the relationship between Wendy and Violet, the second daughter, was explored in depth. A lot of time is given to them, and certainly their voices are the ones that are remembered when the book finished. But that means others are neglected. The main victim of this is Grace, the youngest sister. Whilst she does make appearances, she is often side-lined and isn’t given the same amount of time as her siblings. I often forgot about her; she wasn’t a part of the main storyline. She seems to be in the narration only as a plot device towards the end, and other than then she feels like a throwaway character.

The plot was also a bit of a mixed bag. At first it was a very enjoyable read; I like family dramas and some of the characters were dynamic enough to keep me interested. Yet at some point the novel tips into melodrama and it just became exhausting. There was always something happening to someone in this family, and the constant stream of new plot points made each one less impactful. The reader is never given time to digest and reflect on these new developments, because there will be another one in twenty odd pages. I remember thinking at certain scenes: how are all these things happening to one family? It became too ridiculous, and I was becoming bored by it. This could also be due to the fact the novel is over 500 pages; a length I don’t think it deserves. The themes were well-established halfway through and the plot was losing steam around that point (perhaps a reason why for dramatic events constantly being introduced?), making the last third of the novel seem unnecessary.

The Most Fun We Ever Had does have a lot of good qualities. When she focuses on characters and their relationships, Lombardo truly excels; the Sorensons were really engaging for the most part. If people are fans of melodrama then maybe they will like the plot; I just found it becoming too ridiculous that it stopped being fun to read.  I would have preferred less dramatic plot points and maybe more character development, especially with figures like Grace. Also the length seems a tad excessive; the novel overstays its welcome. Perhaps I felt this way because I read another Women’s Prize nominee, Red at the Bone, which also deals with family saga and is less than half the length. But this felt it could have been shorter. Definitely an interesting longlist nominee and I can’t wait to hear more thoughts on it.

The Most Fun We Ever Had is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson and you can find more information here

Girl by Edna O’Brien review

Edna O’Brien’s Girl is centred on Maryam who, along with her classmates, is captured by Boko Haram after they storm their school.  Kidnapped and taken to a camp in the middle of nowhere, the girls struggle to survive. Maryam miraculously manages to escape, but upon arriving home finds she is ostracised from her community.

There are some similarities between Girl and another of O’Brien’s work, The Little Red Chairs. They deal with incredibly different topics – the first concerning Boko Haram and the second touching upon war crimes in the Bosnian war – but their themes are strikingly the same. The two leads are women who are inadvertently caught up in these horrific situations, and it is them, regardless of their innocence, who suffers by way of the judgemental attitudes of the societies they live in. O’Brien also touches on the aftermath; the emotional and physical toil the women experience after their ordeal is over. However, in Girl I would have liked to have heard about Maryam’s emotional and mental health during this time. Whilst it is mentioned, a lot of chapters felt like Maryam describing her actions and the world around, but not really giving an opinion on them or how she felt. This was felt particularly towards the end of the novel. It became more about plot than about Maryam herself.

The writing itself though was brilliant. O’Brien uses short, sharp sentences throughout the book; each feeling like a knife stabbing at flesh. The violence of the structure mirrored the violence in the plot, which O’Brien never shies away from nor sugar-coats. Girl contains plenty of upsetting scenes and will disturb some readers, so I understand why people may not want to read it. Yet despite the disturbing content, O’Brien never loses the humanity of Maryam and the others. Maryam is the focus of this novel; she is one of the titular girls and is the sole narrator of the story. Despite the trauma she has experienced she is not silent, she has been given a voice – a voice that many might not wish to hear, but she speaks anyway.  In a way, despite the bleakness of the subject matter, Girl is ultimately a book about hope and love. There is a glimmer of light amidst the darkness, and this is what makes Maryam, and the readers continue.

Girl is an interesting one. I am glad I read it, and I enjoyed it but due to the subject matter it isn’t one I’m likely to pick up and reread. Saying that O’Brien does handle the content tastefully and her writing is superb. It would have been good to go under Maryam’s skin a bit more, find out what she is feeling in some moments. This does happen at first but drifts off by the end which is a pity. But I can definitely see why this has made the Women’s Prize longlist.

Girl is published by Faber & Faber and you can find more information here.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson review

As I very slowly make my way through the Women’s Prize longlist, I thought I would pick up some of the smaller novels on the list, in order to have read a few more nominees before the shortlist is announced (and also because I’m trying to put off The Mirror and the Light until humanely possible). That is why I picked up Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, a slight novel that packs a mighty punch. It opens in 2001 and sixteen year old Melody is making her entrance at her coming of age ceremony. Her grandparents and parents watch on as she descends the stairs, and as the novel progresses the reader hears the perspective of all five family members. As their memories, hope and desires unfurl, so does the history of America itself.

As mentioned before this is a slight book; the edition I read was less than 200 pages. But Woodson explores so much within those few pages; exploring everything from race and class, to events such as the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 to 9/11. Yet it never feels rushed, nor do any of the themes feel under developed. Woodson’s language is carefully chosen and precise that she is able to convey so much with so little. Some sentences were incredibly powerful, simply written and stated but containing an emotional heft that was remarkable. The use of repetition as well was also cleverly done, hammering home not just themes and ideas, but also the characters’ abilities to endure dark moments, both personally and historical events.

The different character perspectives was also really well handled. Woodson gave each family member a distinct voice and personality, making it easy to sympathise with them. They are well-fleshed out and discovering their different wants or dreams, which sometimes clashed with another’s, was really interesting. In particular, the relationship the grandparents had was beautiful. Yet by also having three generations tell their story – or perhaps more accurately, fragments of their stories – Woodson is able to discuss the history of America through the eyes of this one family. The novel feels like a discussion of the country as a whole, rather than just character studies. By exploring the past Woodson makes connections to the present, so whilst Red at the Bone is primarily set in the early 2000s it still feels relevant.

It is clear why Red at the Bone made it to the longlist. It is incredibly written, and Woodson successfully tackles massive themes, such as race, class, gender, and family; all explored through five people. It was a heart-breaking and endearing read; one which is ultimately hopeful, despite the serious subject matter. Last year’s Women’s Prize’s winner Tayari Jones describes this as ‘An epic in miniature’ and I’m inclined to agree with her. It is an incredible achievement in quite a slim package.

Red at the Bone is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and you can find more information here.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner review

If Fleishman is in Trouble hadn’t been longlisted for the Women’s Prize earlier in the month, I probably would never have picked it up. However here it is, the second book of the sixteen nominees I’ve read. Forty somethings Toby and Rachel Fleishman’s marriage has ended. Now finally free, Toby joins dating apps and hooks up with random women after his work at the hospital, whilst Rachel continues to work at the company she founded. One day Rachel disappears, sparking Toby to reflect on their life together. But there are always two sides to every story.

Brodesser-Akner has a great eye for detail. She captures peoples’ behaviours really well, and her observations made me smile. They felt authentic, and the interactions on the dating apps were painfully realistic. As too was the section dealing with Rachel’s childhood; I identified with a lot of the feelings she mentioned there and reflected on my own growing up. There are also some moments that are quite funny, especially those involving Toby and his growing frustrations.

The way this book is structured is quite interesting. The narrator is neither Toby or Rachel but Elizabeth, Toby’s childhood friend. This means she sometimes includes asides, or even remarks on what she herself is doing in the narrative. By having another person  commenting on a Toby’s actions, you see his own flaws and understand he is not as perfect as he makes himself out to be. Elizabeth also talks about her former life as a journalist at a men’s magazine and that passage is brilliantly written, eloquently summing the difficulties of women face in male-dominated fields and also commenting on the novel itself. But having the narrator as a third character also creates a barrier between the reader and the characters. Particularly in the beginning, it is hard to connect with either Toby or Rachel so the book feels a bit slow and unengaging at first. It definitely picks up in the latter half, but the lack of connection to the characters can put off some readers. It should also be noted that it is quite slow-paced at moments, and characters will go on tangents and maybe not get back to their main point a couple of pages later. I don’t mind this in books but not everyone will enjoy it.

In her review of Fleishman is in Trouble, writer Dolly Alderton described the novel as a ‘Trojan horse’. I definitely agree with this, especially since I have seen many people dismiss the novel as ‘white male privilege’, most of whom haven’t even read the book. Yes, Toby is a white male in an incredibly privileged position, but the book isn’t solely about him. One could argue that it even isn’t about him at all; rather Rachel and, to a certain extent, Elizabeth whose experiences are the most relatable and memorable.

As I mentioned beforehand, I would never have picked up Fleishman is in Trouble. However I am glad I did so as I found this book really enjoyable, though I wasn’t totally enamoured. Whilst it is very well-written, I struggled to connect with the characters particularly in the first half. It won’t be for everyone, and I can very much see this as a Marmite book and definitely an interesting pick from the Women’s Prize judges. Will it make the shortlist? I doubt it but who knows!

Fleishman is in Trouble is published by Wildfire and you can find more information here.

Women’s Prize for Fiction Predictions 2020

The Women’s Prize for Fiction is perhaps my favourite book prize, and certainly the one I enjoy following the most. Everyone’s reactions and reviews to predictions, the longlist, shortlist, and eventual winner provide plenty of food for thought, and I love discussing the books with everyone. It is hard to believe the prize is 25 years young – probably because I hear so much about it, it seems to have gone on forever.

As the longlist will be announced on Tuesday 3rd March this year, here are my predictions of what might be on it. We’ll find out how right (or probably wrong) I am soon!  My list is in no particular order, and where I have reviews of the books I will link them. I’m not going to go into a huge amount of detail here, so if you want more information on the books then my reviews are where I’ve discussed my thoughts. All I’ve included here is a plot synopsis and why I think it might be on the longlist. But without further ado, I’ll dive into my predictions.

The Testaments1. The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

What? A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments follows three different women; Agnes, Daisy, and the formidable Aunt Lydia. Through their narratives we learn more about life in Gilead, its relationship with the outside world, and a potential plot to overthrow the government.

Why? The Testaments is a really popular choice for the longlist and it is easy to see why. It co-won the Booker Prize last year, and Atwood has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize three times. It is hard to imagine it not being on the longlist at least.

 

2. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo Girl Woman Other

What? Twelve stories that centre on mostly black British women, spanning from the 1900s to the present day.  Through these interconnected stories Evaristo explores the both feminism and race, and the experience of growing up as a black woman in the UK.

Why? This is obviously the other Booker Prize winner from last year, and the one I’ve heard most people say should have won outright. Admittedly I am one of the few people who has yet to read Girl, Woman, Other but the rave reviews it has had from both critics and the public means it is highly likely it will be longlisted. It would be a big surprise if it didn’t make the cut.

 

Confessions of Frannie Langton3. The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins

What? In 1826, Frannie Langton is on trial for the murder of Mr and Mrs Benham, with whom she lived as a maid. The novel flashes back to Frannie’s life as a slave on a plantation in Jamaica and traces her journey to England and subsequent relationship with the Benhams. But one question lingers: is she guilty?

Why? Again, this has also had a huge amount of praise from critics and readers, and won the 2019 Costa First Novel Award. Collins’ writing is beautiful, and she manages to tackle a lot of hard-hitting topics, from racism to women’s right. Despite being a historical fiction novel, its themes are still relevant today.

 

Starling Days4. Starling Days – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

What? It opens with a young woman called Mina standing on George Washington Bridge. Despite her protestations that she isn’t about to jump, the police don’t believe her and her husband Oscar is called. The two newlyweds’ complicated relationship is then explored during the course of the novel.

Why? This was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award last year, so it has had award buzz before. But I mainly want to see Starling Days on the longlist because I think Hisayo Buchanan is a great writer. Her debut Harmless Like You was really beautiful and thought-provoking, and it would be nice to see her work get a boost from a nomination.

 

Queenie5. Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

What? Queenie, a twenty something journalist living in London, is on a break from boyfriend Tom. Confused and alone, her life starts to take a turn for the worse, professionally and with friends and family.

Why? Queenie has been really popular with readers – including myself. I really enjoyed it. The Women’s Prize jury sometimes picks popular contemporary books – I’m remembering both Three Things About Elsie and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  making the longlist. As I think Queenie is a much stronger novel than those two, I hope to see it on the list.

 

The Mirror & the Light6. The Mirror & the Light  – Hilary Mantel

What? I feel like this book doesn’t need much of an explanation. This is the final part in Mantel’s trilogy on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.

Why? Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (which I’ve still not read yet) have been nominated for countless awards; also both won the Booker prize in their respective years. So it seems likely that The Mirror & the Light will be just as well-received as its predecessors.

 

Saltwater7. Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

What? Lucy is a recent University graduate who travels to her grandfather’s cottage in rural Ireland. Whilst there she reminisces on her childhood and growing up in the north of England, and her subsequent Uni days in London.

Why? Saltwater is quite an ambitious novel but Andrews pulls it off. People will either love this book or hate it; it is told in vignettes and hops between different periods of time. It would definitely be an interesting addition to the longlist; I can see it generating a lot of discussion.

 

Patsy8. Patsy – Nicole Dennis-Benn

What? The eponymous Patsy finally receives her visa and goes to live in New York, leaving young daughter Tru behind in Jamaica. We then follow both womens’ lives: Patsy realises life in the USA isn’t what she expected whilst Tru struggles with her identity and the idea her mother left her with no intention of returning.

Why? Like my inclusion of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, I would like Patsy to be nominated as Dennis-Benn is a great writer and deserves more recognition. Plus, the critical acclaim Patsy has been getting makes it a possible contender. I can’t wait to read it regardless.

 

Girl9. Girl – Edna O’Brien

What? Our narrator is Maryam, captured, abducted, and married into Boko Haram. She witnesses and experiences many horrors whilst trapped. Yet when she is finally rescued and freed, her life is still filled with hardships as she is judged by  society for what happened to her.

Why? Edna O’Brien is an incredibly prolific and well-respected author who has won countless awards over the years. It is hard to imagine her not on any awards longlist. Girl also tackles a hard-hitting and disturbing subject matter, yet one that needs to be told and never forgotten.

 

Doxology10. Doxology – Nell Zink

What? The novel is split into two sections. The first is set in New York City in the 1990s, where three friends Pam, Daniel, and Joe have set up their own punk band. However, the band isn’t successful, and Joe fairs a lot better as a solo artist. Pam and Daniel have a daughter called Flora. In the second section we follow a now grown Flora in the present, who is a young environmentalist.

Why? Zink tackles issues (political, environmental) that we are affected by today, and does so with aplomb. Also by starting in the 1990s and finishing in 2016, Zink also looks at the changes the US has gone through during this period through the eyes of this one family. A very timely novel whose relevance might see it on the longlist.

 

Long Bright River11. Long Bright River – Liz Moore

What? A psychological thriller which follows Mickey Fitzpatrick, a policewoman whose job is to patrol the 24th District. Because she has been there for years, she knows most of the sex workers who live there by name. And it will ultimately be down to her to capture a serial killer who is targeting these women, despite her boss attempting to bury the news of the crimes.

Why?  Admittedly, psychological thrillers don’t often appear on the Women’s Prize longlist (can Little Deaths be counted as a psychological thriller?). Yet, most people were surprised when Liz Moore never made the longlist for her novel The Unseen World, so perhaps the jury would want to rectify that this year. Plus Snap made the Booker longlist a couple of years ago, so perhaps the Women’s Prize might follow suit?

 

A Thousand Ships12. A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

What? This is a retelling of the Trojan War, told from the perspectives of the many women involved in the conflict. We hear from Greek and Trojan women, as well as the goddesses and their experience of warfare.

Why? I’m in two minds about including this. Last year both Circe and The Silence of the Girls were shortlisted for the prize. Given this, I’m not sure if the jury will want to stay away from classical retellings or not. A Thousand Ships has been receiving acclaim from both critics and the public so that might also sway them.

 

10 minutes13. 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World – Elif Shafak

What? Again this is a novel split into two parts. The first deals with sex worker Tequila Leila, who has just been murdered and follows the last 10 minutes, 38 seconds of her life. The second looks more at the people she remembered during that small period, and how their lives intersect.

Why? 10 Minutes… was shortlisted for the Booker last year and I can see it making the longlist of the Women’s Prize. Shafak discusses women’s rights in Turkey throughout the novel so its subject matter might also appeal to the judges. It is one where I would be surprised if it didn’t make it.

 

The Dutch House14. The Dutch House – Ann Patchett

What?  In the 1940s Cyril Conroy begins building a vast real estate empire, starting by purchasing the Dutch House on the outskirts of Philadelphia. However, this starts a chain of events leading to devastating consequences. As the novel is spread across five decades, it is clear the Dutch House has made an indelible mark on the Conroy family.

Why? Patchett is already a Women’s Prize winner, scooping the gong for Bel Canto a few years ago. She might pick up her second this year, as The Dutch House has been getting a lot of praise. It is also a Sunday Times top bestseller and made countless ‘Top Books of 2019’ lists so it is loved by a lot of people.

 

Adults15. Adults – Emma Jane Unsworth

What? At first glance, Jenny McLaine has a pretty good life. She owns her own home, she has a cool job working for a magazine, she has a ton of friends. Yet her life is slowly spiralling out of control. Hence why one day her mother shows up at her doorstep.

Why? The premise makes it sound sort of similar to Queenie, so it will be interesting if both of them make the longlist or just one (or possibly neither). I’ve heard mixed things about Unsworth’s first novel Animals but this one seems to be faring better so it might have a chance to sneak into the longlist.

 

Strange Hotel16. Strange Hotel – Eimear McBride

What?  It is hard to describe the plot of this book. The different sections follow the same woman but all take place in different hotel rooms. She travels to places like Prague, Oslo, Avignon, and Austin and we hear her thoughts and feelings but in the confines of the hotel.

Why? Now, this is a risky one. Strange Hotel looks more like a novella than a novel, and the Women’s Prize has a strict word count. If the book is below it, it won’t be nominated. If it is eligible though it definitely has a shot – McBride won the prize with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and was nominated for The Lesser Bohemians.

 

And those are my predictions for the Women’s Prize longlist 2020. Whew!

I tried to include a mixture of established authors and those perhaps just on their first or second novel. It’s always nice to see up and comers on awards lists; it gives them a career boost plus introduces me to authors I haven’t heard of. There was also plenty of books that I couldn’t include but wanted to: The Doll Factory, Hamnet, and Weather are all possible candidates too.

Let me know who you think or want to be on the longlist!