TOAST Magazine

Women's Prize for Fiction | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

Jen Campbell reviews the shortlist for the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction.

For the past four years I’ve read the Women’s Prize shortlist. It has never failed to introduce me to wonderful books. This year is no exception, although I didn’t fall in love with all of them. 

Before we dive in, I’d like to linger for a second on two longlisted books I was surprised not to see shortlisted: Sally Rooney’s Normal People — a shock simply because it’s a favourite of so many, and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a truly magnificent novel about identity and power which I’ve reviewed for the TOAST Book Club before. 

However, I’ve judged enough prizes myself to know that the judging room is a complicated place. You win some, you lose some. So, let’s talk about the books that did make it...

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite tells the story of long-suffering Korede, who has been cleaning up after her sister — quite literally — her whole life. As you may gather from the title, her sister Ayoola has a nasty habit of killing people, and what started out as self defence has morphed into something much more sinister. This novel is short, punchy and a lot of fun. I would happily recommend it but I wanted more from it. Ayoola has a weakness for social media and her crafted theatrics are how she gets what she wants. There was potential for a fascinating delve into the difference between private self and performative self but, whenever I thought the novel was about to go there, it frustratingly zoomed straight past.

If My Sister the Serial Killer is the book I could safely recommend to most people, Milkman by Anna Burns is at the other end of that scale. There is often one book on the shortlist that defies conventional narrative structure — last year that was The Idiot by Elif Batuman — this year it’s Milkman, which has been compared to A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and which won the Man Booker Prize in 2018. The novel is set during the Northern Ireland conflict but The Troubles is not presented like a history lesson. This novel is about the impact those events had on communities. How people lived and breathed tension; how hatred bloomed in indirect ways. Our narrator wants to escape her present by burying her head in nineteenth century novels and, ironically, we engage with her present by burying our head in her story. The branching, hectic writing style of Milkman is not for everyone but I find myself intrigued by it.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans, named after the song by John Legend, explores the tired love lives of two London couples. It asks what’s it like to be with someone who knows everything about you; what happens when nothing is new and everything feels mundane. To reflect this, the writing style is languid and fluid; we come to know these characters inside out, exhausting every thought, every memory. It’s not one of my favourites from the list but I would recommend it for fans of Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker tackles The Iliad from the point of view of Briseis, a woman claimed as a prize by Achilles and subjected to horrific abuse. There are excellent touches to this book, such as characters speaking in northern dialect and Achilles’ fetish for the sea, but at the same time I battled with the way this novel delivered its message. For the most part Briseis is our first person narrator and throughout she laments that she cannot escape Achilles’ story. She is tied to his narrative against her will — silenced, along with so many other women. I therefore found it vexing that in a book that sets out to give Briseis a voice, I left it not really knowing who she was. Yes, she’s our chronicler; her words reach us like an underground hum but I wanted to know about her, not just what was happening to her and those nearby. I wanted to know her inner thoughts, her hopes, her past. I left the novel feeling as though I’d learned more about Achilles, which seemed to defeat the point.

Now we come to my favourite two titles from this year’s shortlist. Madeline Miller’s novel about the life of Circe, daughter of Helios — witch, nymph, goddess — is an absolute pleasure; there is no doubt that we are in safe hands when we read this book. What I found particularly wonderful is its tone. Circe commands this story. Even though she is constantly learning, there is such patience in the way she narrates. It’s almost as though we are witnessing the creation of an omniscient narrator. We understand all at once that she is young yet ancient, to be feared yet pitied. She is a set of magical contradictions, gliding through time and yet timeless herself.

As calm and commanding as Circe is, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is deliberately chaotic. Celestial and Roy are flawed but innocent characters who find themselves at the mercy of America’s racist judicial system. Set in the present day, it brilliantly echoes James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, altering the decisions the characters made in his 1974 novel, while keeping the overall premise the same to show that little has changed when it comes to race and justice today. Part prose, part epistolary, An American Marriage is intentionally messy and complicated, infuriating and heartbreaking. It’s the text that moved me the most and stayed with me the longest.

As always, trying to predict the winner of The Women’s Prize for Fiction is a difficult task, and one I often get wrong. I have my fingers crossed for Circe and An American Marriage but we’ll have to wait until the 5th June to find out which of these six books is crowned queen.

This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl AquariumPlease let us know your thoughts on who will win The Women's Prize for Fiction and, as a thank you, we will enter you into a prize draw to receive a copy of the next book.

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