Women’s Prize No. 16/16
I was ecstatic (and to be honest, a little surprised) that I managed to finish reading the Women’s Prize longlist mere hours before the shortlist reveal! You can find the rest of my thoughts in my longlist wrap-up, but I do want to give a fair look at Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered before completely switching my attention to the shortlist.
In the novel, Spring goes to visit her son in the hospital as he lays dying from injuries sustained in a streetcar accident that he may or may not have caused. The accusations against him have more to do with his race than any factual evidence, but if Spring can’t change public opinion she can at least help Edward’s soul find its way to heaven (and his birth mother) by sharing the truth of his ancestry with him. With her dead sister by her side, Spring begins to tell the tale of slavery and freedom through several generations of family history, making sure it’s told the way she remembers it rather than the way it’s been publicly recorded and opined by the (white) masses.
“Either I’ll tell it my way or it won’t get told.”
I thought this was a good title to cap off my longlist experience, as it didn’t strike me as overly similar to anything else on the list (I’ve been noting a ton of thematic overlap this year) and it moves along at a decent pace. The plot moves smoothly and quickly from one scene to the next, focusing on each situation just long enough for the reader to engage with the characters and then moving along before the prose has a chance to dip into any exposition that’s too overt or sentimental- something I struggle with in Civil-War-era fiction.
At this point, I’ve read plenty about the evils of slavery in US history, which made a few sections of this book feel rather expected and already-done. But ultimately, no other title I’ve read on this topic has managed to convey the complex level of competition slavery forces between people who live and work together with quite the same finesse that Battle-Felton manages in Remembered. I was stunned by the heart-breaking way that Ella learns the other slaves aren’t necessarily on her side, even as they claim to be helping her. We’ve read about the wrongs that plantation owners and overseers have performed against the African Americans sold into their “care,” but have we heard about the wrongs one slave would perform against another? Especially the wrongs that come from a place of love? I found Mama Skins’s actions regarding the two teenaged girls she cares for to be the most nuanced and compelling part of this book.
I also particularly appreciated the juxtaposition of the news clippings alongside Spring’s firsthand account. I found this a very effective way of demonstrating the disparity between what might actually happen (or what people remember having actually happened, memory being an entirely different beast) and the way events are written and distributed for public consumption. I found this especially poignant immediately following Luiselli’s also-longlisted Lost Children Archive, which addresses the same topic.
“Freedom come alright. For most of us, it hasn’t come on horses or with golden trumpets. Wasn’t no angel going around saving all the slaves. Some owners turn people loose. Some slaves walk off. Far as I know, wasn’t nobody going round checking if people had set slaves free. And don’t seem like nobody’s making sure we stay free either.”
Unfortunately, other aspects of the story did not work quite so well for me. The ghost appearing to Spring might have made for an interesting spiritual/supernatural element, but instead she felt more like a device for Battle-Felton to convey information to Spring, information that might have been just as effectively left to deduction or assumption. Also, Edward’s position as a scapegoat for the streetcar accident seemed at first a deft move toward showing the ways Spring and her family are still hindered by unjust white whims long past the official date of emancipation Instead Edward’s impending death felt like a contrived reason for Spring to narrate the history that fills most of the novel. I suppose for me the things Remembered seemed like it most wanted to say didn’t always seem to match up with the way the story was being told.
Which, of course, is a stylistic issue, a matter of opinion that’ll vary widely between readers. In the end, I mean only to say that this book was full of ups and downs for me; I have no argument against Remembered, but it didn’t provoke the same level of excitement in me that other longlisted titles have. I think this may have been another sad case (see: Number One Chinese Restaurant) of a prize-nominated book that I might have found more enthusiasm for if I had read it independently of the Women’s Prize. On the other hand, I might never have heard of it without its inclusion on the longlist, and I am grateful to been introduced. I’m not sure where that conflict leaves me.
“When I get mad about them telling me all they think they know about my life, they call me angry. They say it like I ain’t got no cause at all to be upset, sad. Can’t hardly feel nothing without somebody telling me how I should feel instead.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read for me, and I think a good title to herald the end of my time with the longlist. It was easy to get through but it also made me think, which I enjoy in a book. It just didn’t sway me strongly one way or the other, and those seem to be the very hardest books to review.
The Literary Elephant