TOAST Magazine

Women’s Prize for Fiction | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

Jen Campbell reviews the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

This is the fifth year in a row that I have read and reviewed the Women’s Prize shortlist. It never fails to highlight excellent novels, so I wanted to share my thoughts on these six books before the winner is announced on 9th September. There is definitely something here for everyone, so if you’re looking for a story to lose yourself in, let me showcase these for you.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz tells the story of fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion, married off to Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age who wants to own her father’s land in the Dominican Republic. He flies her to New York and confines her to a small apartment, where she has to create a world of her own. Out of all of the books on the shortlist, this is probably the one I feel confident recommending to the most people; it has wide appeal, it certainly captivates you at the beginning, and there are extremely tense moments that made me want to read on. However, it does lose direction towards the end. This may be deliberate, as our main character also feels directionless. Regardless, this book left me feeling a little disappointed.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes is a choral retelling of the Illiad from the point of view of the women who have mostly been silenced by the men around them, and the men who wrote about them. We open with Calliope, muse of epic poetry, who crops up time and again throughout, answering Homer’s demand of ‘sing!’. She is singing, she’s always been singing, the question is: is he listening? I much preferred this to Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, which explores similar territory and was shortlisted for this prize last year. It’s very impressive.

I have a confession when it comes to The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. This is the third and final book in her Cromwell trilogy. Whilst her publisher, 4th Estate, has released synopses and guides for the previous Booker-winning books, so that readers can dive into book three without reading the 1,200 pages that came before, I wanted to start at the beginning. It only seemed right. Also, I had tried to read Wolf Hall on many occasions, and I had never actually finished it. Now, I told myself. Now is the time. And I was right… sort of: now was the time for Wolf Hall. However, it turned out to be the time for Wolf Hall and nothing else. I did finish it this time, the intricate journey of Thomas Cromwell, a man who ‘patted his wife, kissed his dog’ and who shapeshifted his personality to slink through layers of society, from blacksmiths to kings. However, for some reason, I just cannot fall in love with these books, even though I desperately want to. The only way I can think of describing it is that reading these novels feels like walking through a gallery of true-to-life paintings from the 1500s. I am in awe of the artist’s research and skill; in fact, I think she is a queen. I do enjoy my visit to this gallery, but I don’t want to purchase a painting and take it home, and before closing time I feel as though I’m ready to leave. So, it’s with regret that I have shelved the rest of the trilogy for now.

Weather by Jenny Offill reads like a series of stepping stones, or life Post-Its. Neil Gaiman once said “Google will bring you back a hundred thousand answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one.” Lizzie Benson is striving to be that librarian. She’s an unofficial shrink for her family, and is assisting her old mentor Sylvia by answering questions about climate change and the end of the world. But sometimes the end of the world isn’t only the bigger picture, it’s your son telling you he doesn’t think you’re a very nice person. ‘He was just a kid, so I let it go. And now, years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.’ Parts of this book made me cackle, then I’d turn the page and feel like the book was judging me for laughing, as it jumped from a ridiculous situation to an appalling one. How do we live with the weight of disaster, it seemed to ask, and still find joy? It’s an intriguing book; not top of the list for me, but it prods in all the right places.

It’s slightly frustrating when your favourite books on a shortlist turn out to be the very first ones you read —you always hope to find an unexpected gem along the way— but my favourites by far from this year’s list are Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, both of which I read earlier this year. Hamnet is the heart-wrenching story of Agnes, William Shakespeare’s wife, and their twins who contract plague. Both parents craft their own narratives; Agnes privately believing the world whispers its futures to her, William publicly magicking his tales. But neither of their story-spells can save a child, and the irony of reading a novel where you so want to change the ending, and know you cannot, puts you firmly and painfully by these characters’ sides.

Girl, Woman, Other is a tapestry of a book, a novel-play in five acts celebrating the lives of 12 people, mostly women, mostly Black. I have read this book three times in six months, which should give you some idea of how much I adore it. It’s a tumbling, rich, nuanced series of soliloquys discussing race, gender, class; stories brilliantly colliding over one hundred years. It’s truly like nothing I’ve read before.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Maggie O’Farrell and Bernardine Evaristo over on TOAST’s Instagram. If you would like to hear us talk further about their books, grab a cup of tea and head over to TOAST’s IGTV to watch.

This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please let us know your thoughts on The Women's Prize for Fiction shortlisted books and, as a thank you, we will enter you into a prize draw to receive copies of all six books.

Images by Robbie Lawrence

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