TOAST Magazine

Women's Prize for Fiction Shortlist | Book Club


For this month's book club we asked the author Jen Campbell to review the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Following the Women’s Prize for Fiction is a delight. Normally there’s at least one book that’s not for me but this year I’ve enjoyed devouring all six shortlisted books. This is wonderful but it does make the job of predicting a winner rather difficult, so let’s break it down. 

Partly inspired by P. T. Barnum’s Feejee mermaid, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock sees us ensconsed in a vivid, late eighteenth century London. Jonah Hancock’s ship has been lost but he has been presented with a questionable dead mermaid to display to the public, something he’s assured will make him rich. This novel has much to offer; the author’s love of history and the amount of research that’s gone into it shines through, and it’s incredibly impressive for a debut. For me, however, it didn’t have the staying power of the other five on this list.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass expertly explores the gap between selfhood and the female body, how we constantly house battling contradictions due, in part, to societal expectations. Our narrator imagines her true self as a strange sea creature, ducking and diving, her body gasping on the surface, just trying to catch a glimpse. She pulls us into a history of medicine, trying to find a home in facts and certainty to help her cope with the grief of losing her mother, and her fear of becoming a mother herself. The writing is assured, astute and moving.

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is the Marmite book of this year’s shortlist; if you don’t gel with its sense of humour in the first few pages, I suggest you put it down and pick up something else. I happened to find it charming. We are introduced to Selin, attending her first year at Harvard, navigating the absurdities of life, where meaning is often constructed and reductive. Batuman teases us by having Selin say: “[My mother] believed, and I did, too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” And so this book has us chasing meaning through four hundred pages, in what I can only describe as a cross between Greta Gerwig’s wit and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island. 

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is rooted in Sophocles’s Antigone. All five of its main characters are Muslim, yet each have a very different take on their faith, despite three of them growing up in the same family. It tackles issues of radicalisation and prejudice, showcasing characters trying to break free of what they feel are pre-determined narratives placed on them by other people. Given this is a book based on a play, the irony is deftly dealt, and the ending - oh, the ending - destroyed me.

Speaking of trying to escape narratives, When I Hit You: Or the Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy gives voice to a woman who has escaped an abusive marriage. It is a crushingly claustrophobic read, her husband destroying everything she owns, deleting all her online accounts until she can only exist through him. Her body, too, becomes his. As a writer, the narrator is appalled that she no longer controls the narrative of her own life, and by documenting her experiences she seeks to rebuild herself not just as a human, but as a body of text, reclaiming the words that were once ripped from her, permitting her to exist outside of herself.

Finally, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward takes us on a car journey with Jojo; he’s travelling with his mother and sister to collect his father from prison. These characters are haunted, literally sick with a past that’s heavy with racism and violence. They seek exorcism, in the same way Cynthia Bond’s Ruby did (shortlisted for this prize in 2016), both echoing Toni Morrison’s Beloved. At various points, all of these characters declare they’re coming home, but home for them is fluid, elusive; it’s pulled out from under them, while Jojo’s grandfather, River, shines his lighter on the porch ‘bright as a lighthouse.’

Home Fire, When I Hit You and Sing, Unburied, Sing, are all worthy winners in my eyes; I could even see Sight winning, too. If you made me choose, I’d go for When I Hit You, but ask me again tomorrow and I might say something else. I don’t envy the judges picking a winner, but I do thank them very much for highlighting such wonderful books.

Words by Jen Campbell. Images by Thom Corbishley.

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