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Spotlight on: Literary Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Literary Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is unique, in that you could hear a different definition for this genre from virtually every reader you ask. I’ve already tried voicing my thoughts on it at least once  (in the Literary Fiction Tag), but I’ll try again here for further clarity. To me, literary fiction (lit fic) is more about style than content- though many lit fic novels interrogate the human condition and/or state of the world, subject varies widely and in the end what I think classifies fiction as “literary” is form or structure that engages with the content. While genre fiction often aims to tell a story, literary fiction aims to tell a story in a particular way, in which the form is integral to what is being told and advances the purpose of the novel. It is fiction that pushes the bounds of how stories work on a technical level. Thus we can have literary [genre] fiction, as a novel can feature both the content that fits within a given genre and a style that marks it as literary. This is my interpretation.

None of this is to say that genre fiction is in any way inferior- one of my main peeves with lit fic categorization. “Literary” is often (mis)used as an elevating term, given to works that are considered “serious” or even just “good.” Preference should not be mistaken for quality. In my opinion, “good” fiction is work that achieves what it sets out to do, which can certainly be found in genre fiction and can also be found lacking in literary fiction. It’ll depend on the book, and who you ask; reading is always subjective. The main issue that I think leads to genre snobbery surrounding lit fic is that lit fic is seen as a more intellectual approach to writing and reading, where genre fiction is often more focused on emotional response (which is not to say that lit fic can’t be emotional or genre fic intellectual- I see it as a sliding scale with lit fic on one end and genre fic on the other, and where a book falls on this scale will again depend on the reader). Ultimately, it seems unfair to weigh the two against each other merit-wise when they have such entirely different methods and goals.

My other peeve with lit fic categorization is the use of “lit fic” as a catch-all genre for hard-to-classify fiction. If a book’s content does not fit obviously into one of the usual genres, this does not automatically make it literary fiction. A novel can be, in my experience, simply “fiction,” or “contemporary fiction,” or a mix of genre fictions if more than one apply. Yes, lit fic is hard to describe and define, but this does not mean that anything should go.

That said, I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view, which in this case will include literary [genre] fiction; there are no other subgenres that I normally associate with lit fic.

 

My History with Literary Fiction

Though I would say lit fic is now one of (perhaps even at the very top of the list of) my current favorite genres, its appearance in my reading life is recent. While I was growing up, the school and public library in my hometown did not have much of what I would consider literary fiction, and I don’t think I had a real sense of the genre until I started studying English at college, over the internet, and in my own reading.

AtonementAnd so my earliest brushes with lit fic were few and far between; it’s possible that more of what I read as a teen might fit here but its literary merit went unnoticed by me at the time, and of course I no longer remember all of the books I read in those years well enough to reevaluate with more recent knowledge. The first books I can remember reading in high school that might be considered lit fic were The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

From there, a lot of my studies and personal reading experience with lit fic took me to classics and modern classics, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

Lit fic really exploded into my reading life with my foray into blogging in 2016. As my tastes changed and I discovered a lot of titles beyond what was available at my library, I picked up books like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historyas well as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. The VegetarianThanks to the blogging community, my interest in literature prizes grew; though these prizes don’t cater exclusively to lit fic, there is generally plenty of it to be found among the nominees. I’ve become so invested in reading these books that I read the entire Booker Prize 2018 longlist and 2019 longlist, as well as the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 longlist and 2020 longlist.

 

Literary Fiction Classics

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young woman’s extreme struggle with mental health as she attempts to pursue a writing career.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley depicts a scientist’s experiment of restoring life to dead flesh; in a brilliant turn through the relationship between creator and created, the novel reveals that the monster is, perhaps, not the monster after all. (If you’ve already read and loved this one, don’t miss Jeanette Winterson’s brilliant modern homage, Frankissstein!)

Emma by Jane Austen uses irony to great effect as the titular character meddles in her friend’s life, trying to secure a marriage for her that just doesn’t suit. Deft characterization allows the reader to see these characters far better than they see themselves.

Sister CarrieSister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser follows a young woman at the turn of the 20th century, intent on chasing a bigger life. As her success increases, the wealthy man who latched onto her while she was most vulnerable finds himself falling from society instead.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee uses a child’s voice to portray the harsh effects of racism in historical southern US. Its sequel, Go Set a Watchman, switches to an adult perspective (aging the same narrator), revealing further complexities in the situation that the child failed to grasp.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier follows the relationship of a newly-married couple; the husband was a dowager, and his new wife worries she won’t live up to the standard her predecessor set- eventually to realize she doesn’t know the full truth of that first wife’s character.The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is perhaps the horror story of a haunted house, or perhaps the tragic story of a psychologically unstable woman staying in said house. Better yet, perhaps it’s both.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald utilizes a secondary narrator to tell the star-crossed love story of a wealthy but deluded man and the woman who escaped him.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is told through the villain’s perspective, allowing the reader to see how a full-grown man can rationalize a heinous act- in this case, sexually abusing a young girl- without sympathizing with him.

 

Modern Literary Fiction Staples and Recommendations

Experimental works have been my god tier lately. If this is you as well, you won’t want to miss Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise (a look at manipulation and abuse in teacher-student relationships, set in an art school), Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (a young woman’s tale of abuses large and small, mostly from within her family, and their devastating mental effect), Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (a reminder that stay-at-home moms who bake cinnamon rolls all day and worry about things they can’t change are important too), Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater (an exploration of identity where the self doesn’t conform to rules and terms set out by society), MilkmanAnna Burns’s Milkman (an examination of the power of rumor and community, set in the Troubles), and Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything (an examination of the significance and reliability of memory).

But there are plenty of more straightforward gems as well! Some that I’ve enjoyed are John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky (a writer wins his fame by stealing the work of others), Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (a female prisoner reveals the flaws of the US justice/prison system), Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (a reclusive woman tries to convince her neighbors that vengeful wildlife are responsible for a string of local murders), Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure (a trio of girls on an isolated island learn that the dangers of society they’ve been taught to avoid have invaded their space anyway).

 

If you’re completely new to the genre and not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to literary fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like history: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, Human Acts by Han Kang

SeveranceIf you like sci-fi/dystopian: Severance by Ling Ma, The Need by Helen Phillips, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

If you like magical realism: Lanny by Max Porter, Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

If you like short stories or vignettes: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

If you like social commentary: The Farm by Joanne Ramos, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

The PiscesIf you like Greek mythology elements: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, The Pisces by Melissa Broder

If you’re afraid lit fic is just too hard for you, never fear! There are YA options, like Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It; graphic novels like Margaret Atwood and Mary Renault’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina; novellas like Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall and Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream; and novels that are so borderline lit fic that not everyone’s convinced they count (they do!) like Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations With Friends. Other very accessible options include Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, John Lanchester’s The Wall, or Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.

 

Literary Fiction on my TBR:

Never Let Me GoI’ve mentioned a lot of titles already because I have so many favorites I can’t bear to exclude, but actually I think I could pull a much longer list of lit fic from my TBR. Since I’ve only been deep-diving into lit fic for the last few years, I feel like I have a lot of ground yet to cover here. Some of the books on my “can’t believe I haven’t read it yet” list are: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Idiot by Elif Batuman, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

 

Why Read Literary Fiction?

It’s good for the brain! These are books that make you think, and that leave you pondering after the turning of the final page. It is literature as an art form, questing for the bounds of what a story can do, and how. If you’re a curious person at heart, if you’re interested in learning and being challenged, if you’re tired of formulaic stories and want to be surprised, if you love seeing an artist stretch their skill, these are the books for you. They’re full of big ideas. They expand the mind. They open doors. They tell us about who we are and what sort of world we live in. And they’re infinitely unique.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for lit fic, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

2020 Women’s Prize Take 2: Blogger Edition

As much as I appreciated the structure that the Women’s Prize longlist brought to my reading and blogging life over the last two months of global chaos, in the aftermath of the shortlist announcement I have been taking a nice break from both that I didn’t realize I needed so desperately. But, I’m back on my game this weekend and getting back into both!

For a bit of further explanation here, I’ve been part of a chat group called Women’s Prize Squad comprised of some great bloggers with similar bookish interests; it’s low-key and no reading is actually required- two members of the group haven’t read any of this year’s longlist at all yet. These lovely people are: Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty, Rachel, Sarah, and Steph. Though opinions do vary, one thing we could all agree on this year was that the official longlist wasn’t living up to expectations for us, and in a year with so many great eligible books we found that especially disappointing. So, just before the shortlist announcement, we spent an hour or two assembling our own longlist from this year’s eligible books: fiction written by women published in English in the UK between April 2019 and March 2020.

It wasn’t something we planned or prepared for in advance, and our selection method was the highly scientific process of choosing a random draft order and letting each person pick any two eligible books they wanted to nominate. This is in no way affiliated with the official Women’s Prize, if that hasn’t already been clear. I’m posting about our personal longlist now because I’m going to be reading and reviewing these books on my blog in the coming weeks/months, and for those who’ve followed along with our Women’s Prize Squad content for the prize this year and are looking for some more promising recommendations, we’d like to offer up some alternative titles. This is all in fun, and varies from titles that have been recognized by lit prizes to titles that haven’t, from titles many of us have already read, to titles not a single one of us has read. In the end, these are books we’ve been loving and/or are VERY excited about; if you’ve also been underwhelmed by this year’s WP longlist or have finished it and are looking for a new challenge or just like to look at recommendations lists, I hope this collection of some of our top choice new releases by women over the last year will have something that appeals to you as well!

Without further ado, the list:

Bunny  Bunny by Mona Awad – Literary horror featuring a group of women in a selective New England MFA program; they call themselves Bunnies and take part in workshop rituals that blur the line between reality and their own monstrous fictions. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

The Body LiesThe Body Lies by Jo Baker – Thriller/suspense novel about a busy and distracted woman teaching creative writing in the English countryside; after a discussion about violence against women, she realizes one of her students has written her into his novel as a character with a terrifying fate. (My copy has just arrived!)

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – Fantasy in which a young woman who is the sole survivor of a multiple homicide is given a free ride to Yale on the condition that she keep track of sinister and occult activities among the school’s secret societies. (I’ll be adding this one to my May BOTM box!)

The Fire StartersThe Fire Starters by Jan Carson – Magical realism set during the Irish Troubles; two fathers begin to have concerns about their children as fires break out across Belfast and the line between right and wrong blurs as the two men must choose who to protect. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

Ducks, NewburyportDucks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – Literary fiction following an Ohio housewife who spends her days baking for a living, mothering her children, and worrying constantly about the state of the modern world. Alongside her narrative is the tale of a female mountain lion searching desperately for her stolen cubs. (My 5-star review here!)

ActressActress by Anne Enright – Literary historical fiction about an infamous British-Irish actress (now dead) and her daughter, set partially against the backdrop of the Troubles. Years after her mother has gone mad and shot a man, Norah writes about what her mother was really like behind the wealth and fame. (My 4-star review here!)

Girl, Woman, OtherGirl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – Literary fiction told in short story-like vignettes that showcase the lives of twelve British women- mostly queer, mostly black. These highlight the challenges minority women have faced in historic and modern London, converging narratively around a successful theater production. (My 4-star review here!)

My Name is MonsterMy Name is Monster by Katie Hale – Science fiction set in post-apocalyptic Scotland. This story features a woman called Mother and a girl called Monster who find each other after the end of the world and rebuild a life in the now-empty world, only to realize as they learn from each other that they want different things. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

The MerciesThe Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Historical fiction depicting a devastating storm in an isolated Norwegian coastal town that leaves most of the men there dead. As the women reassemble their lives in the aftermath, they are further challenged by a Scottish witch hunter planted in their midst, who feeds off the divided community. (My 5-star review here!)

The Man Who Saw EverythingThe Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – Literary fiction following a man who’s been hit by a car and leaves the scene with a somewhat hazy recollection of his life. As he shares what he knows, he reveals tragedies left in his wake through the years, but also a greater problem that he fails to grasp. (My 5-star review here!)

Disappearing EarthDisappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – Literary mystery in which two girls vanish in northeastern Russia; in the year following their disappearance, women from the area share their own stories, all relating loosely to the missing girls. (My 5-star review here!)

My Dark VanessaMy Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – Contemporary fiction about a woman reevaluating a relationship she shared with a manipulative teacher during her teen years. It’s a psychological exploration of sexual abuse and its aftermath. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – Young adult fantasy featuring a character from The Raven Cycle (a YA series by the same author) who can pull things into the real world from his dreams. He is not the only person with this ability. (I’ve read The Raven Cycle but don’t own it- I’ll check this one out from the library when it reopens!)

Supper ClubSupper Club by Lara Williams – Contemporary fiction coming of age story featuring a secret society of women who give in to their hungers and feast, letting go of society-taught repressions and going back into the world with rebellious confidence about the space they fill. (I already have a copy on my shelf!)

Frankissstein: A Love StoryFrankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – Science and historical fiction taking place in a near-future world in which Artificial Intelligence is on the cusp of taking humans’ place in the pecking order; alongside debate on this topic are snippets from Mary Shelley’s history, including her famous character Frankenstein. (My 5-star review here!)

The Bass RockThe Bass Rock by Evie Wyld  – Historical fiction set on the Scottish coast, a place that oversees and absorbs the tales of the people who’ve lived there across centuries. The stories of three women in three timelines loosely intersect in this narrative of violence and resilience through the ages. (I’m having difficulty tracking down a copy, but as the US release date is early September I’m sure it will be easier to get hold of a little later on.)

 

I, for one, am beyond excited about this list. I’ve already read seven of the books, had seven others on my TBR, and was happy enough to add the last two. From the books I’ve read, I’ve had two 4-star ratings and five 5-stars, for an impressive average of 4.71. So while of course I cannot say this is an objectively better set than the Women’s Prize 2020 longlist (that is not quite the point here), it is obviously much more to my taste; if your taste seems to overlap with mine at all maybe there are some gems here for you as well!

We would like to eventually vote amongst ourselves on a shorlist and winner, but no date has been set. This isn’t something we want to feel pressured into reading on a certain timeline, and we won’t necessarily all read all of the books, so clearly this isn’t as rigid as the official judging process- but I will post about further developments and I’d love to chat about these books with anyone who’s read them or is planning to read them or just wants to have some fun watching how this alternate, blogger-built Women’s Prize turns out!

Are there any titles here you’ve read, or want to read? Do you think you’ll pick any more up? Particularly looking forward to any of my reviews? Let me know all of your thoughts in the comments below!

 

The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2020: Shortlist Reaction

The results are in! In case you missed the announcement, this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist contains the following six books:

Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors!

wp2020shortlist

(Again, I’m missing a copy of Weather, thus the backward-facing stand-in.)

My shortlist reviews (so far) are linked in the titles above. For more of my thoughts on this year’s prize titles, be sure to check out my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist wrap-up, which contains the links to all of my longlist reviews and my impression of the set as a whole. Also included are some shortlist predictions, in which I guessed five of these six titles correctly! That is certainly a record for me, and made for a fun reveal. But let’s talk about the list.

First, what isn’t there? A few of my longlist top choices didn’t make the cut, including Actress, which I was never convinced would stand a chance at the shortlist with this set of judges, who seem to prefer accessibility over literary merit. I thought Fleishman is in Trouble might have stood a slightly better chance, as it is a juicier family drama (which these judges seem to favor, if the longlist is anything to go by), and aside from its bold structure it isn’t a particularly literary read, though it is quite smart. But I wasn’t confident enough to place this one on my predictions list either. I’m more surprised not to see Djinn Patrol, which was lower on my favorites list but a great blend of heavier topics with a lighter narrative tone that I thought would appeal to these judges. It’s also a debut novel from an Indian author amidst quite a few well-established US and UK writers. Similarly, How We Disappeared is a debut from a Singaporean author, and also deftly handles some tough themes- I’m heartbroken this one didn’t advance. I didn’t include it on my prediction list mostly as a way to brace myself for this bad scenario of it not advancing, which sadly is what happened.

Also of note, I think, are the absences of The Dutch House and Red at the Bone, neither of which I particularly wanted to advance but both were highly favored among readers.

As for disappointments that did make the cut, the biggest one for me is Dominicana, which hasn’t sat well with me over time (bumped down to 2 stars), mainly for its lackluster presentation of a questionable romance masquerading as an immigration tale. But it does adhere to a particular motherhood story arc that I saw repeated throughout the longlist, which must have particularly appealed to this year’s judges, and on the heels of the American Dirt debacle earlier this year it does at least make a positive political statement about the need to support immigration stories written by immigrants (or their descendants, in this case). I was also underwhelmed by Weather, though aside from it not resonating with me personally I really have nothing against its presence on the shortlist. Most surprising is the appearance of A Thousand Ships, which I did include in my prediction list as a last-minute wild card but regretted almost immediately because it felt like throwing away a vote; after both longlisted Greek retellings (in the wake of which A Thousand Ships accomplishes very little that’s new) featured on last year’s shortlist, it’s a shock to see such a similar sort of story being honored again so immediately. But while I wasn’t quite at the right place in my reading life to love A Thousand Ships, I do think it’s a perfectly fine novel whose main fault is simply having such a tough act (Miller and Barker) to follow.

But there are some reasons to celebrate as well! With two WP shortlistings and two Booker Prize wins under her belt for the previous books in the same trilogy, it is exciting to see Mantel advance with The Mirror and the Light. It would be a great accomplishment to see her win either the WP or the Booker this year with the trilogy’s final book, and I’d very much like her to have that success. I’m also currently reading this trilogy, so its place on the shortlist is also personally motivating and lets me feel my reading is still “relevant” even though I didn’t quite finish this final longlister before the shortlist announcement. But I’m equally thrilled for Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other on the shortlist! After the fiasco of her dual win of the Booker Prize last year with Atwood, it would really be a rewarding accomplishment to see her win this one outright. Helped, of course, by the fact that her experimental novel (mostly) about queer black women in London is an absolutely excellent book. Then there’s O’Farrell with Hamnet, which was my favorite reading experience from this year’s longlist despite not being the most technically well-done. O’Farrell is perhaps a bit less obvious a choice for the winner (though still very deserving!) than Mantel or Evaristo this year, which is appealing in itself.

And some of my least favorites are now left behind as well, another relief. I’m most pleased not to see Girl on the shortlist, which I thought was messy both in content and authorship. I’m also glad not to see Nightingale Point advance, which many longlist readers (especially UK-based) seem to be loving, though I strongly disliked mainly for failing to deliver on its stellar premise. While I had some fun reading The Most Fun We Ever Had, I also thought it had nothing to offer beyond entertainment, which is really not what I look for in a literary prize so am happy to see this one missing from the shortlist as well.

I think the only longlisted book I haven’t mentioned yet is Queenie, so might as well! This was probably the most middle-of-the-road book for me on the longlist, and I was fairly indifferent to its possible shortlisting. It’s a book that I love to see getting commercial attention and was happy to discover on this year’s longlist, but it also left me nothing to think about after closing the cover, which isn’t a trait I would look for in “the best” fiction of the year. I suspect it might have been a bit too thematically similar to the more obvious shortlist choice of Girl, Woman, Other, which probably hurt its chance of advancing this year even if it is a great read.

wp2020longlist(minusone)

So, my initial overall impression of the shortlist: It could have been worse! It also could have been better, but it would have been hard to pull a really exciting shortlist out of a longlist that felt so underwhelming to begin with, and I think the three I’m happiest to see on the shortlist also have the best chance of winning, so it’s hard to feel too bitter.

Do I recommend reading the shortlist? Sure! While I don’t think this is the most exciting set of six books, there’s only one that I thought was actually subpar, and some readers seem to be having a better time with it than I did. If you’re a long-time prize fan looking for a literary challenge though, this one might not be for you. But there’s no shame in picking up only what appeals either, even if that isn’t the set of books that made it to the shortlist. I recommend at least glancing through the longlist because this is a great way to find books by women that lots of people are reading and talking about! My top recommendations from the longlist would probably vary by reader, but I would most widely recommend Girl Woman Other, How We Disappeared, Hamnet, and Queenie.

Where I stand: The only shortlister I haven’t read yet is The Mirror and the Light, which is the third book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I am currently reading Wolf Hall, the first book in said trilogy. I’ll plan to review all three books together in one go, probably at the end of April or beginning of May. The winner will not be announced until September 9, so there’s plenty of time to finish up (and I do intend to take it a bit easier both with reading and blogging than I have been the last few weeks)! I’ll probably start gathering my concluding thoughts as soon as I finish the Mantel, while my thoughts are fresh, but I’ll wait to post them with an informed winner prediction until closer to the final announcement date, by which time a refresher will probably be helpful.

But never fear! I’m obsessed with Women’s Prize content these days, so more WP-related posts will still be forthcoming. I’ll be posting about an unaffiliated alternate longlist created from this year’s Women’s Prize eligible books, assembled by a great group of bloggers who’ve closely followed this prize. Whether you’re looking for just a few further recommendations or a whole new reading challenge, stay tuned! 🙂 I’ll also be reading as many previous WP winners as I can over the next five months, reviewing as I go, because September is also the closing of the WP “winner of the winners” public vote! The poll is open now if you’re already prepared to cast your vote; if you’re waiting, I’m planning to post at least a partial wrap-up including some thoughts on all of the past winners I’ve managed to read, complete with a ranked list of my favorites.

In the meantime… let me know what you think of this year’s shortlist! Do you have an early guess for 2020’s winner?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Women’s Prize 2020: Longlist Wrap-Up, Shortlist Predictions

The shortlist announcement for the 2020 Women’s Prize is only hours out! In that spirit, here is a full round up of my thoughts on the longlisted books (minus one- I haven’t finished Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light yet), and some guesses about what lies ahead for the shortlist.

wplonglist2020

(Not pictured: Weather by Jenny Offill, which I read from the library in Feb.)

Though my initial reaction to the longlist was one of cautious excitement, my feeling at the end (or almost) is one of disappointment with this year’s selections. This year’s judges seem to have very different reading taste than I do, and as a result I am left underwhelmed by many of these titles and by the 2020 longlist as a whole. It hasn’t been all bad, of course- this list has encouraged me to pick up a few books I’m happy to have read that I might have missed otherwise! But I’ve not found a single 5-star read among them. This is in contrast with last year’s Women’s Prize longlist which contained FIVE 5-star reads for me, as well as two 4-stars that came very close. In the wake of such excellence, I am less than satisfied with my overall current rating of 3.2 for the 2020 longlist.

One part of the experience that made this longlist stand out for me is the fact that it was the first time that I’ve read most of a longlist outright, picking up the books back to back to back from start to finish. Well, 13 of them- I read two titles prior to seeing the longlist, and still have one left to finish. With life out of whack due to lockdowns and all, I found it very helpful to have a structure to follow over the last month, a concrete list and a (sort of) concrete deadline.

Also because of the lockdowns and *current world state,* I noticed quite a few mentions of fever, quarantine, hand sanitizer, and other “timely” key words in this year’s longlisted books. Almost every book, actually, contained a sentence or two that felt very ironic given our present situation. It’s likely this would have happened with anything I was reading (the same way learning a new word makes it suddenly seem to crop up everywhere), but I was surprised to realize how common it is that authors remark on outbreaks of illness. The most obvious case is of course O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in which the black plague plays a key role, but there were plenty more mentions. (No wonder reading has been such a struggle for so many who are stuck at home these days!)

“I was, for most practical purposes, a person in quarantine; my sickness was without cure and kept eating away at me until I could hardly see anything of myself.” – How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

” ‘Here-‘ she said, holding out a bottle of antibacterial hand gel. She squeezed some into my palm.” … “I pinballed my way down the bus, careful not to touch anything or anyone with my hands, and stepped off.” –Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

” ‘He wears the mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. / ‘From the pestilence?’ / His mother nods. / ‘And will it?’ / Her mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. Not coming into the house, however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might,’ she mutters.” –Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

 

Less coincidentally, I noticed among this year’s longlist a pervasive theme of motherhood commentary. Every single longlisted book (barring Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I can’t speak about yet) includes a pregnancy, a child, a family, or some combination of all three as a central focus of the book. There are absent mothers, abusive stepmothers, sisters who take on parental responsibility, women who aren’t ready for pregnancy but find themselves faced with it anyway. Of course lots of women even outside of literature have children and families, but they are present in these books as main subjects, not incidental details. The common trend seems to be an exploration of what makes a “good” mother; many of this year’s longlisted titles present the reader with a woman who is seen as bad or undesirable as a mother for one reason or another, and then goes on to show that there’s more to the story and to demonstrate that the mother is actually making the best choices available to her given her circumstances. Though this is perhaps ultimately a positive message about women existing as individuals outside of the demands of motherhood, it does paint a rather unflattering image of parenthood in the process, giving us many mothers who seem discontent, doomed from the start, and unrewarded for their efforts.

I’ve never seen a theme quite so consistent across an entire longlist, and while I don’t have an issue with books about motherhood on principle, the concentration of it here bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not particularly interested in marriage or motherhood for myself at this point of my life, which made it harder for me to find any of this commentary personally relevant.  I don’t need to “relate” to every book I read, but out of sixteen of “the best” books in literature published by women over the last year I would have hoped for at least one that would really speak to me. There’s so much more to women’s experiences than motherhood. There’s so much more to literature. It’s disappointing not see more of a variety being highlighted by this prize.

Secondly, I couldn’t help wondering how the strict adhesion to this theme reflected the judges’ approach to selecting this longlist. Were there great books up for the Women’s Prize this year that were passed over for a spot on the list because they didn’t focus on motherhood? Were some of the weaker longlisted titles chosen solely because they highlight motherhood and family dynamics? I have no proof or insider info of course, and I ask out of a sense of curiosity and fun rather than accusation, but this has provided me some interesting food for thought as to the judging process. (Another conspiracy theory for your list, Naty!)

Before I move on from themes and content, I want to touch on some smaller parallels I found between longlisted books. Here are some subjects and/or tactics I saw repeated:

  • Boy sleuth investigating tragic mystery: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, How We Disappeared
  • Long-term emotional and psychological effects of large scale violence/disaster: Nightingale Point, A Thousand Ships, Girl, How We Disappeared
  • Retelling: The Dutch House (Hansel and Gretel), A Thousand Ships (Trojan War)
  • Impoverished group neglected by police/government: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Nightingale Point
  • Wicked stepmother: The Dutch House, Hamnet
  • Criticism of marriage and wealth through unlikable characters: Fleishman is in Trouble, The Most Fun We Ever Had, The Dutch House
  • Ignorant men overlooking efforts of spouse/family: The Dutch House, Fleishman is in Trouble
  • Challenges of life in London as a black woman: Queenie, Girl Woman Other
  • Teen girl removed from family home and raped: Girl, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, A Thousand Ships
  • Absent mother: The Dutch House, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone, Queenie Fleishman is in Trouble, Hamnet
  • Family saga: The Most Fun We Ever Had, Red at the Bone, Actress, The Dutch House, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, Girl Woman Other, Hamnet
  • Difficult/unusual pregnancy/birth: Fleishman is in Trouble, How We Disappeared, Girl, The Most Fun We Ever Had, Hamnet, Red at the Bone, Queenie, Actress

(Let me know in the comments if you’ve noticed any connections I’m missing! I had a particularly hard time placing A Thousand Ships and Girl Woman Other because of the multitude of perspectives in each; I read GWO several months ago and no longer remember every character’s plot arc. I also haven’t read The Mirror and the Light yet so am not sure what applies.)

 

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, my ranked list of longlist titles, from most to least favorite. You can follow the links through the titles for more info and my thoughts on each of the books!

  1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 4 stars
  3. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars
  4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4 stars
  5. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars
  6. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars
  7. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – 3 stars
  8. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 3 stars (down from 4 stars initially)
  9. Weather by Jenny Offill – 3 stars
  10. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars
  11. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars
  12. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars
  13. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars (down from 3 stars initially)
  14. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars
  15. Girl by Edna O’Brien – 2 stars

(Not included: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I’ll come back and edit it into place when I finish, but my best guess right now is that it’ll end up in the 4 star range, though I’m HOPING for a 5!)

wp2020faves

You can see above my top six favorites, and those would be my IDEAL shortlist. But I don’t expect that will happen. My actual shortlist prediction is:

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  2. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill
  4. Djinn Patrol by Deepa Anappara
  5. Dominicana by Angie Cruz
  6. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

wp2020shortlistpredictions

This was actually very hard to choose! It is always a bit challenging to guess what will appeal most to other people (in this case five other people), especially when factors like diversity, past accolades and present author standing, past WP lists, thematic relevance, and more could all be weighed in the balance as well. I drafted about fifty variations of predictions before I had to just quit so I could finish this post before the announcement, ha. I doubt I’m correct but I didn’t feel any more confident about my other variations and it’s all in fun anyway! Anything could happen. A Thousand Ships is my bold choice reflecting that, I suppose, after TWO Greek retellings made it onto last year’s shortlist.

I’m most sure about the Evaristo and Mantel advancing, and the only book I really don’t want to see advance is Girl. My other 2-star ratings do seem to be getting more favorable reviews from other readers, so I’m trying to prepare myself for one of those featuring. I also have seen that most of this year’s popular hits and commercial successes (ahem, The Dutch House) are not my personal favorites, though it’s always hard to guess how many big names/titles the judges will put forward- not 6, surely. But it seems inevitable SOMETHING I don’t want to see on the shortlist will be there. I just hope some of my 4-star faves will also appear!

Soon we’ll know. I’ll probably post again in about 24 hours with a few early thoughts in reaction to the shortlist, and possibly a winner prediction! (Although maybe not if Mantel does advance, I’d like to finish her trilogy before sharing an opinion about it.)

 

Last but far from least, I can’t close this wrap-up without a big shout out to my Women’s Prize squad, who’ve been ranting and (less frequently this year) raving about the prize books along with me: Hannah @ I Have Thoughts On Books, Marija @ Inside My Library Mind, Naty @ Naty’s Bookshelf, Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri, Sarah @ Sarah Ames-Foley, and a special nod to Callum @ Callum McLaughlin, the only one of us to actually FINISH the entire list before the shortlist announcement!! Since disappointment with the longlist was pretty mutual amongst us this year, we’ve actually recently assembled an alternative longlist, which I (and others from the group) will be posting about soon as an offering of further recommendations and fun. 🙂

And an extra shout out to even more bloggers who’ve been posting Women’s Prize content that I’ve been loving following along with: Hannah @ Hannah and Her Books, Hannah Celeste @ Books and Bakes, Gilana @ Gil Reads Books, Laura @ Laura Tisdall, and Lou @ Random Book Reviews Web!

If there’s anyone here you’re not already following, definitely check them out! (And if I’ve been commenting on your Women’s Prize content over the last month but I’ve missed you on this list, please let me know so I can correct the oversight!) A big thanks also to everyone who’s read, liked, and/or commented on my Women’s Prize posts even if you’re not reading/posting from the list this year. Having a community to read and chat with about this prize really makes the experience, and I hope anyone who’s been following along with my thoughts has had a positive experience as well!

 

And now… what do you think will make the shortlist?!

Edit: it’s been half an hour and I already want to change my chaotic A Thousand Ships prediction to a perhaps slightly more likely (and personally preferred) Hamnet… 😅

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Actress

This is likely my last review from the Women’s Prize longlist before the shortlist announcement coming up on the 21st! I am still planning to post a wrap-up / shortlist prediction prior to the announcement, and I will review the Mantel trilogy (probably all in one go) as soon as I finish it, which likely won’t be before the 21st. I am currently reading (and really liking) Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but 15 books into this list I’m TIRED and Mantel’s books are all so LONG. Anne Enright’s Actress, on the other hand, is of considerably more manageable length!

actressIn the novel, Norah is approached by yet another writer who wants an interview about Norah’s mother; after this encounter, Norah decides it is finally time to write her own book about her famous/infamous mother. And so begins a recounting of the life story of Katherine O’Dell, English-Irish star of screen and stage, known in the end for her eventual madness and for shooting a man in the foot. Mixed with this tale is the story of Norah’s own life; as Katherine’s only child and her “miracle,” the two shared a close relationship, their tales forever intertwined.

“This was my marvellous mother, who told me that I was marvellous too.”

Here we have another little family saga for the 2020 Women’s Prize. With Norah as narrator, hers is the only perspective the reader is given directly, though in describing her mother’s history Norah also delivers to the reader the actress Katherine O’Dell and her parents, for a generational story spanning about the length of a century.

There is very little plot to Actress. Norah mentions her present life a few times: the interview about her mother, a trip to her Katherine’s birthplace, a few exchanges with Norah’s husband. None of it amounts to much. Between these moments, the family history is told unchronologically, lightly working its way toward an explanation for Katherine shooting someone and also toward a revelation about Norah’s father, but for the most part the timeline feels rather meandering and aimless. I found it a bit difficult to stay invested in the underlying story; though I enjoyed episodes from Katherine’s and Norah’s lives, I didn’t feel much cohesive forward motion in the overall narrative.

What held the book together for me instead was its dual sense of character study. Though Norah claims to be writing about her mother, I would argue that Actress is actually more about Norah. Her mother in the focal point because Katherine’s career and fame has irrevocably shaped Norah’s life, evident even after Katherine’s death in the fact that Norah’s books sell because they’re written by “the daughter of Katherine O’Dell.” The fact that the book is addressed to Norah’s husband, a frequent “you” in these pages, indicates that this account of the actress is perhaps a private project not intended to leave the family home. A personal reckoning, an opportunity for reflection and introspection. There are moments that left me wondering about the reliability of Norah’s memory of her mother, and of the way Norah’s biases may have skewed her understanding of what had happened in her mother’s life or what it meant; I took this as an intentional tactic meant to blur the line between where one woman’s story ends and another’s begins, but certainly part of the beauty of Actress’s characterization is that there’s plenty up for debate in the presentation as well as the content; opinions on the book’s point of view and intent are likely to vary.

“Despite her posing, as though for Life magazine, with her new white goods, the truth is that Katherine O’Dell was, at forty-five, finished. Professionally, sexually. In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door.”

Altogether it’s a very nuanced look at a mother-daughter relationship, at the hardships women face when they’re well-known, and when they’re not. Very little of the book is actually about acting and fame, but rather about the personalities of the two women behind their public masks. Both are complex individually, and likewise is their relationship. They love each other AND find each other challenging. Norah is “a miracle” to her mother, but her existence also serves as a reminder of things lost to Katherine O’Dell, or roads that can no longer be taken. Likewise, Norah’s identity has been, throughout her entire life, tied to her mother’s, flaws, crimes, madness, and all. They are two beautiful, remarkable people, revealed away from the stage and public eye to be every bit as ordinary and extraordinary as the rest of us.

“The dress was a costume, it made her look demented, I thought. So there you are. Did I already know she was crazy? Just the way all mothers are crazy to their daughters, all mothers are wrong.”

I was also hooked early on by the writing. Enright’s prose is clever, perhaps a bit too much so in the dialogue, but very well-formed otherwise. She’s got an incredible sense for when to turn an image or idea on its axis, drawing new meaning on the perpendicular instead of following beaten paths or resorting to tired phrases. My favorite line was perhaps this one:

“And the house around me is a puzzle of absences, room by room.”

Though none of the historical moments or bits of social commentary apparent in these characters’ experiences ever felt central enough to be hailed as the focus of the story, I did appreciate the glimpses into WWI and the Troubles, and the remarks about how women were generally treated by society in different eras. For example, I wouldn’t say this book is “about” the challenges Katherine faced as an actress, the expectation that she be always young and beautiful and less powerful than the men around her, though these details are inextricable from her career and indeed crucial to the story. The backdrop of the Troubles in northern Ireland as Katherine’s mental state begins to fluctuate is also crucial, though again there’s much more to the story. Enright manages to fold small so many huge events and weave them all in together, for the reader to unpack at will.

In the end this was quite a mixed experience for me. I enjoyed the book though not necessarily the story. After finishing it I was left mulling and marveling over individual pieces and how they fit together, which I appreciate, though the emotional impact was low for me. While I may not have loved every moment of the read, I do think this will be a book I’ll remember fondly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the sort of book I expected to find on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, subtle and literary and packed with food for thought. I didn’t find it as immediately gripping as some of the other titles, but I still overall had a good time. I may be interested in trying more of Enright’s work in the future.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: How We Disappeared

The date for the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement seems to have moved up to the 21st of April! It’s a small change (from the 22nd, originally) but we really are honing in on the last few days now. I’ll have one more review coming up before then (in addition to this one); I’m also planning to read as much of the Mantel trilogy as I can before the announcement, but with one day less to read and review now I doubt you’ll be seeing my thoughts on it before my longlist wrap-up post, though hopefully soon after. In the meantime, here’s a look at another longlister that I have finished reading “on time,” Jing-Jing Lee’s excellent debut novel, How We Disappeared.

howwedisappearedIn the novel, Wang Di is an old woman in the year 2000; her husband has recently passed away, before the two of them managed to finish telling each other the stories of what life was like for them during WWII in Singapore. As Wang Di tries to track down more information about her husband’s past, she also remembers her own horrific experience as a teenage girl in the 1940s. Also in 2000, a boy named Kevin is shaken when his grandmother dies after mumbling a hard-to-hear but shocking secret. He also sets out to find out the truth of what happened to his family during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in WWII.

“The same thing happened to the other girls, their colour and skin and flesh withering away into pale shadows, until they were little more than a collection of cuts and bones and bruises, badly healed. This, I thought, this is how we’re going to disappear.”

This book is told in three alternating perspectives: Wang Di’s past and present, and Kevin’s present. It was impossible for me to resist comparing these characters with a couple of others from this year’s Women’s Prize longlist. First, Kevin acts as boy sleuth, much like Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. Though I loved Jai’s voice in that story, Kevin’s hunt for clues is more productive, making for a stronger mystery element with no lag in the middle. Second, the primary focus of How We Disappeared is on Wang Di’s past, in which she is forcibly removed from her family’s home and taken to be a comfort woman- essentially a sex slave for the Japanese soldiers occupying her home country. This part of the narrative is very similar to the content of Edna O’Brien’s Girl, which follows Maryam, a Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped and abused by Boko Haram, a violent religious group. Though the girls’ experiences are similar, again it is Lee’s rendering that stands out as the more successful of the two. She manages a much more considerate and nuanced examination of how a girl in these circumstances might have felt. The thorough research that must have gone into Wang Di’s characterization is clear, without interfering with the story’s emotional effectiveness.

Before I get any farther, let me warn you that there is a lot of disturbing content in this book. A large portion of it takes place in an occupied country during a world war, complete with bombings, soldiers stealing from civilians as well as abusing and killing them at will, and starvation creeping ever nearer for those who escape military notice. There’s the kidnapping of the comfort women, holding them against their will, raping them, and otherwise treating them like invaluable property rather than human beings. There is also a rift between these comfort women and their people- though they’ve been given no choice about what has happened to them, loved ones and strangers alike blame them for shameful actions. The comfort women emerge physically and mentally ill, with little if any support. Even Kevin is being bullied by his peers, this behavior largely ignored or misinterpreted by the adults in his life. Both Kevin and Wang Di are grieving the recent death of a loved one. If you’re not in the market for a bleak book, don’t pick this one up.

” ‘You know what happens to girls who fall sick here? Or who get pregnant?’ She jerked her thumb towards the back of the house, where the rubbish bins were. Into the heap, she meant. Gone.”

Despite the rough content though, there are happy moments. The writing flows wonderfully, and adept characterization keeps each point of view compelling. Wang Di’s past chapters are the clear standout, but I enjoyed all three perspectives and thought every section added something important to the story. It does also help that Wang Di’s later life is presented early enough in the story to assure the reader that she does survive her stint as a comfort woman and forge a tolerable life afterward. The retrospective angle through which the book’s most horrific details are presented lends a sense of remembering the past but also of laying it to rest and moving forward. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t leave a lingering sense of despair.

In fact, I appreciated so much of the telling that my only real criticism is that the piece of story that connects Wang Di’s tale with Kevin’s is delivered all at once at the end of the book in an info dump of messages left behind by absent characters. This disrupts the established pattern and pace, though given the nature of Kevin’s and Wang Di’s investigations into the past it is hard to see how Lee might have navigated this differently. It also puts Kevin in the position of collecting and writing this tale, which is hard to believe for a boy of his age (ten years old), aspirations of journalism aside. Presumably some time would have passed before he was able to write it at this level, but no actual indication of that is given.

“Sometimes all you had to do to get someone to talk was to be silent.”

Even so, this is a topic I’ve not encountered in fiction previously, and I found Lee’s prose very convincing and evocative. I was emotionally invested in Wang Di’s life, hit hard by each new horror she encountered, and remained interested throughout the entire novel in both main characters and the inevitable intersection of their tales. There was not a moment of boredom or of doubt about Lee’s careful handling of this subject. I highly recommend this one, and look forward to seeing what Lee will write next.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was very nearly 5 stars for me, and I can safely say it’s the book I would be most disappointed not to see on the shortlist. I’ll talk more about my wishes and predictions soon, but this one, I think, is likely to advance: well-written and impactful. Soon we’ll know!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Queenie

Today marked the FINAL WEEK in the lead-up to the Women’s Prize shortlist announcement! It was also my birthday, which was very low-key, relaxing, and Women’s Prize focused this year, thanks to this whole lockdown thing. Any day full of books is a good day though, so before I turn in I’m here to talk about another title from the longlist: Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie.

queenieIn the novel, Queenie is a young woman of Jamaican descent living in London. Her boyfriend of three years has just requested a “break,” so Queenie is temporarily moving out of their shared apartment. At the same time, she’s received some shocking news from her gynecologist that she’s keeping to herself. Amid this upheaval, while the boyfriend refuses to answer her calls or texts, Queenie begins having meaningless sex with men who treat her like trash, which also contributes to trouble at work and with her friends. Everything seems to fall apart at once, and the constant casual (and not so casual) racism Queenie faces drags her down to an all-time low. Can she pick up the pieces?

“I just wanted my old life back. I wanted my boyfriend, and I wanted to not be fucking up at work, I wanted to feel good about myself. I was so far from that, so far from being who I was, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from self-destructing.”

Queenie is a pacey read driven by compelling first-person narration and packed with modern day-to-day dramas. It’s essentially a coming-of-age story; Queenie is in her mid-twenties just trying to figure life out, in a way that’s very relatable as a fellow mid-twenties woman who’s not entirely sure where her life is heading. Though Queenie’s quest for “normalcy” and a happy ending may be familiar, she is also a very specific character with plenty to share about the female Jamaican British experience. Or at least, one example of it. This aspect I could not relate to, though the level of detail with which things are explained suggests that the book was written with a much wider audience than Jamaican British women in mind, and I did close the book feeling as though I’d gained a bit of perspective.

Queenie as a character is easy to love, despite her questionable choices. It’s clear she’s a good person, a mostly positive, optimistic person, even though she’s hit a rough patch and lost her stride. She reaches out. She tries. She doesn’t apologize for who she is or try to become someone she’s not. She’s not great at explaining or even examining her feelings, so it’s possible some readers will feel disconnected from her, though I think her emotions are usually clear enough through her actions, and it does serve the plot for her to untangle her feelings later on. Carty-Williams has crafted a complex, dynamic character in Queenie, and I enjoyed reading from her perspective.

Point of view aside, the writing is plain but adequate; I found myself marking passages for their quotability rather than because I found the style inspiring or noteworthy. Despite the excellent characterization in Queenie, the rest of the book’s cast is rather one-dimensional. There is not a lot of technical skill on display; this is clearly a contemporary book rather than a literary one, by which I mean the words are well-chosen and serve their purpose, but achieve nothing beneath the story’s surface or through the structure of the narration.

Both plot and commentary are transparent. There’s no nuance to Queenie’s choices in the course of this story, no doubt for either her or the reader that she’s making bad choices because the things she won’t talk about are bothering her at a very deep level. These unaddressed things will, of course, be revealed throughout the course of the novel, and it is not difficult to guess what they will turn out the be- the narration has a tendency to conspicuously skip over details that will later become important, leaving a gaping hole where that information should be, a telltale question mark left dangling as the story moves on until it’s ready to address these gaps. Even the commentary on racism is obvious; someone says something laughably ignorant, another character explains why it is Bad. Even lingo is dissected in-text, whole Urban Dictionary entries appearing in dialogue/text messages. There’s no chance of missing anything, though this also means there’s little need to look deeper than the blunt top layer of text. It’s all right there up front.

” ‘All that Black Lives Matter nonsense,’ scoffed an older man I recognized from the review supplement. ‘All lives matter. […] What about the lives of Latinos, of Asians, the lives of- I’m white, does my life not matter?’ he continued. / ‘I’m not…suggesting that the lives of other ethnic groups do not matter,’ I explained, gobsmacked that I had to explain. ‘I don’t think that any part of Black Lives Matter even hints that other lives are disposable?’ / ‘Well, when you put the lives of some and not all on a pedestal, what else are you doing?’ / ‘It’s not putting black lives on a pedestal, I don’t even know what that means,’ I said, my heart beating fast. ‘It’s saying that black lives, at this point, and historically, do not, and have not mattered, and that they should!’ “

Black Lives Matter is, of course, an important topic, as are the other examples of racism and defense against it that appear throughout the book, but I can’t help but feel lectured when these are laid out so blatantly (as in the example above), which is not a preferable reading experience. It pulls the reader out of the fiction layer of the story, rather than working together with it (at least it does for me). I’m certainly no expert on racism or intersectional feminism, both of which I think Queenie is attempting to address, but my personal taste tends toward subtlety over bluntness; I certainly think there’s an audience for this book and I don’t hesitate to recommend it despite the lukewarm temperature of this review, but because of its blunt-edged approach it just wasn’t a perfect fit for me.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be fitting of the 2020 Women’s Prize longlist if we didn’t acknowledge that this is also- to no one’s surprise- a book about motherhood. This becomes apparent through Queenie’s relationship with her mother, her grandmother, her aunt, and her own thoughts on pregnancy. All of these mother figures have their own particular commendations and flaws, as Carty-Williams- like the rest of this year’s longlist authors- unpick the question of what a “good” mother looks like.

“Do you think I sleep, with all of you to worry about? I don’t think I’ve put my head on the pillow and slept a full night since 1950.”

All in all, a solid offering that I am glad to have read and don’t mind seeing on this year’s longlist, though I wasn’t quite as impressed as I’d hoped to be. I’ve saved some of my highest-hopes titles for last, so the competition is getting to be somewhat fiercer at this point. (Finally!) I’ll have at least one more positive review coming before the end of the week!

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undecided between a 3 and 4 actually, this might change by the time my longlist wrap-up comes up next week. Though the book didn’t do quite as much as I’d hoped it would, I did still have a good time reading it and expect I’ll remember it fondly. I wouldn’t count out reading more of Carty-Wiliams at this point, and I wouldn’t be broken-hearted to see this one make the shortlist, though I think there are stronger contenders I’ll root for ahead of this one.

Have you read Queenie? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant