Tag Archives: women’s prize 2020

on Mantel and Cromwell

Before 2020, the name Thomas Cromwell meant very little to me. My knowledge started and stopped with ‘advisor to Henry VIII,’ and all I knew about Henry VIII was ‘the one with all the wives and beheadings.’ I’ve not been particularly interested in the British monarchy until recently (I’ve also been watching The Crown this year) and I wasn’t following book prizes when Mantel won with the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But because I followed the prizes in 2020 and because many expected to see Mantel walk away with another win for her Cromwell finale, The Mirror and the Light, I decided to give this sweeping historical saga a go. Everyone seemed to be loving it! But alas, my own experience with these books was not quite as enthusiastic.

If you’re brand new to these books and avoiding all spoilers, you can safely read my thoughts on Wolf Hall; very mild spoilers will be included in discussions of the latter two volumes. However, this series is really more about the journey than the (well-known) historical events, so I don’t think reading all three reviews will ruin the read for anyone. Your choice though, of course! And a last note: it is best to read the books in order if you want to read them all, as they feature the same characters and build off of previous events and character dynamics.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell serves Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful Catholic figure in England, a formal advisor and close friend to reigning King Henry VIII; Wolsey is in as high a position as any man other than the king could be, so long as he keeps the fickle ruler happy. Staying in the king’s good graces means bending the rules when they don’t fit Henry’s desires, though the Cardinal’s role within the church limits his ability to bend, particularly in the matter of the divorce Henry seeks from his first wife. Cromwell, Wolsey’s devoted right-hand man, is able to learn from his work with Wolsey how England’s hierarchy of power protects itself, with the help of legal trickery; this understanding makes him a prime candidate to serve the king as Wolsey falls out of favor. And hovering in the background, awaiting the king’s freedom from his marriage: Anne Boleyn.

“Beneath every history, another history.”

Wolf Hall was hard for me to get into. It’s slow, dense, and sprawling, and for someone without much idea of the specific history, the tension of the novel felt uneven to me, without a clear sense of what the threat actually was or where the narrative was headed. The cast is huge, and even Mantel acknowledges that far too many of the characters are named Thomas; instead of delivering nicknames or using distinguishing features or some other narrative trick to help readers differentiate, Mantel seems content to leave the reader to puzzle out who is who with only context to go by. There is a list of characters, but I found the accompanying definitions for each name too sparse to be of much help in remembering who’s been involved in what, and on which side. Furthermore, Mantel often elects to refer to Cromwell often simply as ‘he,’ as though he is god, perhaps; it’s an interesting characterization tactic that forces Cromwell always into the center of the tale, but I found it confusing, having spent my reading life learning that pronouns generally refer to the last person named, which does not hold true here.

“He hears her calling, Thomas, Thomas… It is a name that will bring half the house out, tumbling from their bedside prayers, from their very beds; yes, are you looking for me?”

But despite being a tedious read for me, I’d be lying to say that I found Wolf Hall unimpressive. It is intricately layered and detailed, the harshness and beauty of this world writ large. Cromwell- and most everyone else- feels well enough imagined that it seems he could walk straight out of the pages. It may be a book I appreciated more after closing the cover than while reading, but once I understood its direction and purpose I did appreciate how deftly Mantel illustrated the turning tide, the gradual shift of politics that would end lives and utterly change England. The years of this novel are a portent of what’s to come, and they are milestones in themselves, for the monarchy, for law, for Christianity.

I suppose my main complaint of this book is that Cromwell is not himself much of a key player, this story is in many ways happening to him here rather than at his own hands; these are the events that set his prosperous career with the king in motion, and yet this is largely Wolsey’s story, viewed from a distance. It is nonetheless a story worth reading.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is not a book I would have bestowed with a literary prize, but it is a very promising start to what is clearly a remarkable series. I can’t even imagine how much research must go into a book like this, and it has my respect for that reason even if I didn’t love the read quite as much as I expected, based on the immense hype.

Bring Up the Bodies

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII has broken with Wolsey and with the Catholic church. Rather than a cardinal at his side, Henry has instead a lawyer, one who is able to angle the law to give the king what he wants: that man is Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately, what the king wants continues to change. He grows tired of Anne Boleyn and has his eye instead on a new prospective bride. Can Cromwell succeed where Wolsey failed, finding a way to free Henry from his second marriage to make way for a third?

“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.”

This second installment was an improvement for me. Instead of spanning years, it focuses on about two weeks of Cromwell’s life, and rather than sowing slow seeds of discord it narrows in on one particular problem, which swiftly ends with a dramatic event. The cast shifts a little, but most of the prominent characters are repeated, and Cromwell’s tendency to reflect on his past makes this story easier to sink into from the start.

Furthermore, Cromwell’s characterization soars to new heights here. The entire world and cast is still impeccably detailed, but Cromwell in particular is in fine form. He’s got agency, and he’s on the rise; up and up and up the ranks he goes, and no one is closer to the king. He is crafty and quick, and he is reaping the rewards. But he is also at a moral crossroads. Cromwell is now in a position to destroy the king’s enemies; when backed into the same corner as Wolsey, Cromwell must choose whether to push ahead, damn the consequences. The events of this volume will haunt him, and yet he will gain further favor for them with the king. He is doing both the right thing and the wrong thing at once, and because Cromwell does nothing in halves, he manages to destroy a few of his own enemies along the way.

It’s a complex and horrifying story brimming with death, and perhaps the most unsettling thing about it is that it feels inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether Cromwell is a good or bad person, and indeed it is hard to tell here how black his heart really is- the position that he is in gives him no choice but to dirty his hands for the king, or lose everything. He has already seen Wolsey, his true master, lose. But Wolsey had to listen to the Pope, and Cromwell would rather see religion put into the hands of the people, with the printing of an English Bible, than continue to give Rome that authority. He is, in many ways, a perfect match for the king, though it is necessarily a difficult, delicate relationship.

“‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This sequel, while slightly shorter and more compact than its predecessor, was still somewhat too long and dense for my personal interest level in Cromwell et al; this seems like a good time to remind readers that I rate based on my own enjoyment/appreciation rather than objective merit (if such a thing can be said to exist in any art form). This is the one I would’ve happily given awards to, if that had in any way been my choice!

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)

In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is reaching the end of his rope. The unfortunate demise of Henry’s beloved third wife is a blow for England, and as foreign allegiances shift against Henry and his blatant disregard for Catholicism, it puts Cromwell in the tough position of needing to find Henry a new bride that will bring allies for England. Further complicating matters, rumors against Cromwell inspire civil unrest, several prospects vie for the throne and expect Cromwell’s help to get there, and Cromwell’s own religious and political interests become entangled with his advise to the king, limiting Cromwell’s viable paths forward much as Catholicism limited Wolsey. A misstep is all it will take for everything Cromwell has built to come crumbling down.

“This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”

In case history (and Mantel’s previous work in this series) has not made it clear, even the synopsis tells the reader straight out that The Mirror and the Light will follow Cromwell through his final years- and so we know what is coming at the end of this tale, and if we know anything about Henry VIII at this point, it is that those who lose his favor do not meet pretty ends. The gradual downward slope of things gone wrong builds a wonderful hold-your-breath tension here; as in Wolf Hall I found the wider scope of years and events to be a bit too long and meandering for real cohesion, though having a better sense of what the narrative was working toward this time around did make it a better reading experience for me than Wolf Hall, even if not as tight and sharp as Bring Up the Bodies.

“‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.'”

For prose, I would probably say that The Mirror and the Light is Mantel at her best. She is in full command here, her writing insightful, poetic, measured. We even get ‘he, Cromwell’ usage here in place of the all-confusing ‘he,’ which is a vast improvement in clarity. But she makes one particular move with language that just didn’t work for me: repetition. Even in the first book, Cromwell was in the habit of recalling his past and reflecting on changes that have come into his life, but here Mantel recounts whole scenes, interrupting the flow of the “present” to remind the reader where Cromwell stood in the past. Perhaps because I read this volume immediately after the second book rather than years after it, as more loyal fans who’ve kept up with her publications will have done, I found the continual dredging up of moments already covered to be too much padding in an overly long tome. I can see the method working better for other readers: the laying of two images side by side for stark comparison, but for me I found the constant reminders insulting to my memory of the character. No one is picking up The Mirror and the Light without having read books one and two, are they? Mantel’s working of small observances into the story that turn out later to have been clues woven subtly into the plot are far more to her credit, showcasing a mastery of detail and timing that Cromwell’s clumsier dips into memory lack. I would also exclude the memories that reveal new insight from this criticism, though I found these to be few.

There was one other choice made in the narration of this story that didn’t quite suit me: the final characterization of Cromwell, the tone that the book’s last chapters end on. What I’ve loved most about this trilogy is the moral complexity, the sense that Cromwell has simply been a cog in a machine ever rolling forward, destined to follow the dark path he is set upon by the royal figure who for all intents and purposes cannot be blamed (at least not by his contemporaries) for the wrongdoing he incites. But The Mirror and the Light, in my opinion, undoes that somewhat, asking the reader to see Cromwell as good, as sympathetic, and sadly lost in the end- drawing on his love for his wife and daughters, his devotion to keeping promises, his penchant for helping poor folk who are down on their luck. There’s an air of martyrdom infused in the way this book approaches the death of Cromwell, accused of a crime that evidence must be invented for in order to secure a conviction; while I don’t know enough about the real history of Cromwell to argue against the authenticity of this bid for pity, and of course he would have been as human as any of the rest of us, this choice of characterization just wasn’t what I was looking for from this read. I was much more drawn into the earlier painting of Cromwell as a sort of necessary villain. The martyr bit has already been done with Wolsey, and I was hoping to see Mantel take Cromwell’s peril to new heights.

“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Mantel may have fallen victim here to a fear of leaving anything good out, at the cost of including more than necessary. But nevertheless, and in spite of my quibbles, I was rapt from cover to cover, finished the book feeling haunted by Cromwell, and am walking away far more aware of and piqued by this chapter of history than I ever have been, which I have to call a resounding win.

If you’re still with me, thank you; having read over 2,000 pages in order to write this post I’m letting myself indulge a bit (which is perhaps how Mantel felt, having obviously waded through massive amounts of research to bring us this trilogy).

Because I read The Mirror and the Light primarily in relation to the book prizes I followed this year, I’d like to wrap up with some final prize-related thoughts.

As regards the 2020 Women’s Prize: The Mirror and the Light was both longlisted and shortlisted for this year’s prize, and I stand by that. In my longlist wrap-up earlier this year, I ranked the 15 books I’d read; having now read all 16, I’d say that Mantel ranks 6th on the list for me, near the bottom of my 4-star reads from the longlist. In that spot, I don’t have any complaints about how far The Mirror and the Light went with the WP. And, though I know it’ll upset a few of my followers to hear it, I’m still happy with Hamnet taking the win over Mirror even now that I can properly compare the both- Hamnet managed to excite me more. But Mantel does have one major thing going for her with Mirror– this is the only WP nominee from the 2020 longlist that isn’t primarily focused on motherhood and family. Gold star. This year’s list was in desperate need of more variety, and Mantel should be commended for providing that.

Oh, and just for fun, my WP wrap-up included a few quotes from longlisted nominees that felt eerily timely given this year’s pandemic, and I’d like to add a snippet from Mirror to that list:

“But now there are rumors of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.”

As regards the 2020 Booker Prize: Mirror was longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker prize, much to everyone’s shock after Mantel’s previous Booker wins with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. To be honest I’m also shocked this volume was excluded from this year’s shortlist; it is, in my opinion, a stronger offering than Wolf Hall, and if not quite as impressive for me as Bring Up the Bodies, Mirror did, in my opinion, deserve a spot on this year’s shortlist. It would’ve ranked 3rd on the shortlist for me, and 5th on the longlist. I found this year’s Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, more immediately engaging and enjoyable to read, so I don’t begrudge Stuart his win and wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Mantel to take that slot instead, but in all fairness I’m sure Mirror will live on in my memory much longer than Shuggie, so it certainly rates right up there for me.

In conclusion, Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was a somewhat ponderous and trying reading experience for me, but ultimately a journey I’m glad I’ve taken and would not hesitate to recommend to history buffs and anyone interested in character-driven political dramas. It’s an incredible collection of work, and Mantel’s dedication to doing the subject justice and inciting curiosity in a shady long-dead figure is plain on every page. Though the trilogy requires some patience, it is, truly, a masterpiece.

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

Review: Hamnet

We’re in the final stretch with the Women’s Prize longlist! Today’s update is my review of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, a historical fiction novel I absolutely adored.

hamnetIn the novel, William Shakespeare and his wife, who is here referred to as Agnes, have three children- two girls, and a boy, Hamnet, the latter of whom dies of the plague at age eleven, in 1596. Hamnet and his sister Judith, who also falls sick, are twins.

“How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?”

The book is divided into two parts, the first alternating between the family’s past and the 24 hours leading up to Hamnet’s death, and the second part comprised of one long chapter following the family beyond Hamnet’s death. O’Farrell shares in a note at the beginning of the text both the age at which Hamnet dies, and the fact of his father writing a play titled after him four years later, and thus the story’s major events are not treated as shocking plot twists but instead as the basis for an emotional journey in the lives of one historic family. The dual timelines in the first half of the book help the reader balance the foreboding of this impending event with happier times- William and Agnes meeting for the first time, their marriage, the births of their children. It’s a fairly simple, very effective, structure.

The reason I loved this book was, plain and simple, for the writing. I’ve not read any of O’Farrell’s work before, and though I’ve heard plenty of praise, I was not prepared for how swept away I would be by her style. It is, admittedly, a bit elaborate and overly involved, with lots of imagery and descriptions that aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, so surely this will come down to reader preference. Usually even I prefer sparser prose, but there’s a beautiful sense of rhythm to Hamnet‘s sentences that I found incredibly immersive. Reader be warned though, that this could potentially be a difficult read in our current global state, with the incurable “black death” plague being a main feature.

” ‘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.”

Aside from the prose, pros and cons are mixed. I liked the way O’Farrell leaves Shakespeare unnamed through the entire novel, giving his family a rare chance at the forefront, although the attempt to sideline him even partially is rather undermined by the fact that one of the book’s main purposes seems to be displaying the grief that leads Shakespeare to write one of his best-known plays. However, if the intent of the novel is indeed to explore the reasoning behind Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet, I think the narration does not explore the connections between the play and the circumstances of Hamnet’s death closely enough for it to succeed in that regard. There are threads pointing in every direction, enough so that it is actually a bit unclear where exactly O’Farrell is trying to lead the reader.

Despite being the most prominent character, Agnes is not quite isolated enough in the narration for this to feel like her story, and nor is Hamnet given enough personality for it to feel like his, however central his role. Rather, this book is a wider examination of family, (which should come as no surprise to anyone reading along with the 2020 longlist at this point). Like many of this year’s longlisted books, Hamnet asks the reader to reconsider what we expect good parents to look like by presenting unique and imperfect people who, despite appearances, are trying their best with what they’ve been given. We see Agnes, an unconventional woman with a penchant for nature and an abusive stepmother; she’s a strong woman who won’t change her personality despite the ridicule she (and thus her family) faces from her community. Shakespeare, though flawed, for his part does at least value his wife and her eccentricities. His love for her and for their children provides a counterweight to his long and frequent absences from the family home. Other members of the family are present on the page, though given less depth. Even though the approach, as with many of the other longlisted books I’ve read, lacks nuance, it does at least make for an engaging story.

“They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was.”

But the book isn’t entirely a thematic dud. Emotion is very much at the story’s center, and I think the book excels as an examination of love and grief. The unchronological structure serves as a reminder of the ways in which the two emotions can be delicately linked, and likewise can bind the people who experience them together. The narration traverses both the delights and devastations of marriage and family life, braiding them all into one all-encompassing strand. I felt everything.

The best part: you do not need to have read Hamlet to enjoy/appreciate this novel. I’ve actually read very few Shakespeare plays thus far, and that list does not include Hamlet. I have since ordered a copy though, because O’Farrell left me curious.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would’ve preferred this book to present a bit more commentary or takeaway beneath the surface, but can’t deny that I loved every moment of the read regardless. Though I’m not sure whether this title will appear on my shortlist wishlist (I wanted it to accomplish a bit more than emotion) I am confident it will feature at or near the top of my longlist favorites list. This may have been my first O’Farrell book, but it certainly won’t be my last!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Thousand Ships

You guessed it: another Women’s Prize longlist review. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships is the last book that I finished reading, so this is me caught up on reviews! And I did mostly like this one!

athousandshipsIn the novel, Greek muse Calliope brings the voices of women together to retell the story of the Trojan War from exclusively female perspectives. This includes everything from the origins of the war (the gods’ decisions to meddle with the order of things on earth, a squabble over a golden apple, and Helen leaving her husband to sail to Troy), to the aftermath (the fates of the conquered Trojans, husband warriors returning to their wives in Greece, and much-awaited vengeance), as well as everything in between.

“When the war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else. And victory had made the Greeks no kinder.”

The book is divided into 40-some chapters, each told from the perspective of a different woman connected to the Trojan War in some way. These vignettes are not presented in chronological order, but rather flow between related characters, plot points, or themes. I actually found this quite effective; it’s easy enough to keep track of the overall timeline at least in broad strokes- before, during, and after the war, and this structuring method also keeps the focus on the characters rather than the already-familiar plot. Most of the characters are given only one chapter each, just enough space to explain their roles. The language is also reminiscent of what can be found in the epic poetry already associated with these myths- it reads a bit like a translation from original Greek, which lends a sense of atmosphere and history.

Though I did enjoy the read from start to finish, I had a few specific hang-ups. The largest is that while A Thousand Ships aims to be a Trojan War story focused on women, I did ultimately find it to be the same male-focused tale, simply told from different mouths. In the book’s list of key characters, nearly as many men feature as do women. Though the women’s deaths and sufferings are highlighted, most of their tales still revolve around the famous men. These women tell of their husbands, their sons, their owners (in the case that they’ve been captured as slaves), etc. It would of course be unrealistic to expect that none of these women’s stories would include men at all, but I did wish the women would have been given a bit more space to stand firm on their own.

The clearest example of the male focus can be seen in Penelope, who recounts all of Odysseus’s trials on his ten year journey home (through letters addressed to him, nonetheless!); her exasperation and annoyance with him for leaving her alone so long is the only sense in which her own voice shines through what is essentially her husband’s story, though she is given more chapters than any other character.

“Who but you [Odysseus] would assume that the gods had nothing better to do than assist you with whatever impossible scheme you had embroiled yourself in? And who but you would be right?”

There’s also Helen, who is uniformly hated by the rest of the book’s women, which perhaps isn’t out of the question given her role in their suffering, but should have been explored more fully so as not to come across as victim- or slut-shaming. I actually thought her dialogue in response to the accusations against her was very interesting and went some way toward pointing out the complexities of her character and situation, but it is sparse and more coverage was needed. Helen is not given a perspective chapter.

In the end I think Haynes’s biggest mistake was not using these women’s perspectives to add anything new to the Trojan War narrative. I think a little creative license with events and motives (perhaps even to pad the story if not to change canon material) might have saved the book from continuing to place men at the center of this tale. As it is, A Thousand Ships may be a fair alternative to reading Homer, but anyone with working knowledge of Greek mythology is unlikely to find anything truly revelatory in these pages. It’s a wonderfully woven recap that relative newcomers to Greek mythology (and veterans who just never tire of hearing the same tales over and over) may appreciate, but as someone who’s read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Silence of the Girls, Circe, and The Song of Achilles all in the last two or three years, I found Haynes’s take a readable and adept account that brings absolutely nothing novel to an old story. Calliope (the muse) certainly tries to steer this narrative in a new direction, but being spoon fed the book’s feminist intents through a clear author mouthpiece does not have the same effect that more powerful female narratives would have provided.

“She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she- all the Trojan women- should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too. War is not a sport, to be decided in a quick bout on a strip of contested land. It is a web which stretches out to the furthest parts of the world, drawing everyone into itself.”

Where A Thousand Ships shines, in my opinion is it’s ability to demonstrate the far reaches of a devastating event such as war. Haynes is able to convey that the effects of a conflict like this spread far wider than the number of dead and injured, altering entire communities, including the victors. She acknowledges on the page some of the female horrors of ancient Greece that Homer doesn’t- the way women are appropriated as slaves and even as wives, against their will, the psychological affects of seeing their families and community members killed, their almost complete lack of agency. It is also a story that reminds the reader that there is more to every story than the winner’s tale of triumph.

“In any war, the victors may be destroyed as completely as the vanquished. They still have their lives, but they have given up everything else in order to keep them. They sacrifice what they do not realize they have until they have lost it. And so the man who can win the war can only rarely survive the peace.”

For the right reader this will be a fantastic experience. It’s not a story that requires prior knowledge, though part of the pleasure for me was recognizing familiar faces. If this book had been published before Miller’s and Barker’s recent retellings, if I had read it when I was first learning Greek mythology, I could have loved this book. It’s a perfectly fine narrative that could have stood a few changes but ultimately does nothing wrong. I just came to it at the wrong time in my reading life, and I suspect that most who’ve read the two Greek retellings on last year’s Women’s Prize longlist will end up feeling the same.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.  I have absolutely nothing against Haynes or this book, but hope not to see it shortlisted. I’m not in a hurry to search out more of this author’s work, but I wouldn’t consider it out of the question based on this experience.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Nightingale Point

Another day, another Women’s Prize longlist review! If I can stick to my schedule there should have another coming tomorrow, too. Today I bring you my take on Nightingale Point by by Luan Goldie. Another disappointment for me, sadly.

nightingalepointIn the novel, a devastating tragedy rocks the London-based Nightingale Point apartment building, leaving some dead and more injured, and upending the lives of everyone else who lived there. The book follows five main characters whose lives intersect around this event, all of them affected in different ways by the disaster.

(I won’t name the disaster, as it seems some effort was put into keeping that aspect out of the book’s info. But the nature of this disaster was actually what drew me to this story in the first place, and it’s such a large part of the premise that I personally don’t think the surprise is necessary; it is easy to track this info down on Goodreads and in other reviews, if you want to know before reading.)

” ‘There’s always so much to deal with. It never ends. Getting out of the building should have been the hardest thing we had to do.’ He shakes his head. ‘But sometimes it feels like that was only the start.’ “

The novel opens on the morning of the disaster, with a prologue that flits quickly between points of view and establishes the setting. In the chapters that follow, divided in focus between each of the five main perspectives, the reader sees the lead-up on the day of the tragedy, the event itself, the immediate aftermath, and effects of the disaster up to five years later. It’s an exploration of community and individual response to a large-scale traumatic event.

But oh, I had so many problems with this book. Mainly, the simple, stereotypical characterization combined with the book’s failure to follow up on any of the meaningful commentary it hints at. This book could have been so complex and interesting, and I found myself so incredibly frustrated by how close it brushed to so many worthwhile topics without ever delving beneath the surface.

There’s the teen girl whose father locks her in their apartment “for her own good,” a horrifying circumstance that should have been used as more than a plot point. She apparently had the choice of living with this father or her newly remarried mother, and the reasoning behind her preference for the abusive father is not even touched on, leaving this girl to act as a prop in the other characters’ lives.

Then there’s the boy who severely mistreats a man with a mental disability in spite of (and partially because of) this disability; sure he feels bad about it eventually, but only when he’s given a big reason to, and even then the whole encounter is quickly brushed off and replaced by close friendship with a simple “I’ll try to make it up to you” and no deeper look at why the boy behaved this way in the first place or how it affected the disabled man.

Assumptions can be made, of course, but the novel misses opportunity after opportunity by failing to make any statements about such problematic incidents, treating them instead as an “ordinary” part of life in this apartment block. (Even their ordinariness could have made a statement, and yet doesn’t.) Goldie mentions in her author’s note that this novel was inspired by real events, and that part of the problem with seeing appropriate community and governmental response to such a devastating event was the fact that the affected apartments housed relatively poor families- people simply didn’t care enough about what would become of them; this would have been another very worthwhile facet for Nightingale Point to explore, and yet while Goldie makes it clear that these are not affluent characters, she leaves it at that.

I could go on, but too many specifics make a review read like a book report, which is boring for everyone. I’ll say instead that I found the character arcs predictable and anti-climactic (all of them but one ending essentially where I thought they would have if this tragedy had not occurred), the focus on only five connected individuals too narrow for a proper glimpse at the community as a whole, and every major thematic point of interest abruptly dropped or overlooked entirely. I found it difficult to care about any of the characters, mainly as a result of the way they’re presented rather than because they’re bad people- I tend to enjoy unlikable characters when their unlikability seems intentional, whereas here I think the desired goal was complexity that just vastly missed the mark for me. I found them completely unsurprising.

The story might have been saved at least somewhat by a compelling writing style, but Nightingale Point lacked that for me as well. I actually didn’t tab any lines I liked in the entire book, which is extremely rare for me; I had to go back through at the end to find a couple of quotes to include in this review.

A few potential saving graces of note are the descriptions of the event itself, which I found morbidly fascinating, as well as the emphasis on long-term mental, physical, and social effects of a large-scale disaster. And the quickness of the read! Despite my mounting frustration at finding this very much not the story I wanted based on its premise, I did manage to finish the book in just over 24 hours, which is a feat for me- I’m a slow reader.

Unfortunately, none of these pluses were quite enough to make this a positive reading experience for me. In the end, it felt more like a basic tragic love story and/or tale of brotherhood than a meaningful examination of how people “rebuilt their lives after losing everything”- the author’s stated purpose. Unfortunately, it seemed to me like a lot of the rebuilding was happening off the page, in the gaps of time where the story jumps ahead hours or months or even years. The narration is written in third person, which keeps the characters’ mental processing of this disaster at arm’s reach from the reader. Absolutely nothing about this story challenged my perspective on the effects of a disaster of this magnitude. Maybe the fact that I’ve been through several museums honoring the victims of large public tragedies, the most recent of which I visited just under a month ago, heightened my expectations for this story beyond what the average reader would experience. But for whatever reason, despite the fast read and the absolute miles of possibility in this novel, it completely failed to come together in a satisfying way, leaving me emotionally cold and baffled at the book’s apparent success.

” ‘You keep acting like you’re all right to give up everything you worked for, ’cause things have gotten off-track.’

‘Off-track? You call what happened to us going off-track? Are you fucking kidding me?’ […]

‘I want you to be your old self and get back to the original plan: university, internship, career.’ [He] uses a finger to mark off each stage. ‘I don’t get why you’re giving up.’ “

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. As much as I genuinely hope other Women’s Prize longlist readers will have a better time with this book than I did, I do hope it won’t make the shortlist. I have no interest in reading further from Goldie at this point, though I remain interested in seeing this subject successfully fictionalized. This just wasn’t where it was at, for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The Women’s Prize shortlist announcement is now only two weeks away! I’ve read *almost* 11 of the 16 longlisted books so far and am on track to finish everything but Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on time. I’ll keep trying, but it would take a miracle for me to finish 7 books (plus the last few pages of my current read) in fourteen days, especially given the size of the Mantel trilogy. But I digress- all this was to say that as I near the end, I have a surprisingly clear idea of which books I would be happy to see on the upcoming shortlist. The most recent read addition to this list is Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

djinnpatrolonthepurplelineIn the novel, 9 year-old Jai and two of his friends are disturbed by the news that one of their classmates has vanished. Jai is fascinated with an investigation show called Police Patrol and is eager to soothe his parents’ worries (thus freeing himself from the strict rules they’re laying down)- and so the three children set out to discover what has happened to the missing boy, in hopes of setting their community (an Indian slum) back to rights. As they struggle to find the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together in a realistic way, more children disappear and life in the basti becomes increasingly fraught.

“The headmaster won’t open the main gate fully because he thinks strangers will run into the school along with us. He likes to tell us that 180 children go missing across India every single day. He says Stranger is Danger, which is a line he has stolen from a Hindi film song. But if he were really worried about strangers, he wouldn’t keep sending the watchman away.”

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a mystery of sorts- the question of what has happened to these children keeps the novel moving, though this isn’t a book to pick up for its whodunnit clues and plot twists. (This is reinforced by the fact that Jai’s favorite theory is that evil djinns have spirited the children away, rather than a human criminal.) Instead, at the heart of the novel is the revelation of a greater metropolitan problem- missing children who go unfound and even unlooked for, mainly because of their poverty. Through a series of child narrators- primarily Jai, interspersed with brief chapters about each of the missing children- the reader is given an interesting blend of the worries and delights of youth, who notice the adults’ fears but can’t quite understand them.

“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not.”

The choice of utilizing a nine year-old as the story’s main narrator is both clever and somewhat frustrating- Jai’s investigations accomplish very little, and among his group of friends he seems to contribute the least to solving the case of their missing classmate; I wouldn’t rate him highly as a sleuth, and his scant role in the unraveling mystery is my greatest criticism of this book. On the other hand, he does have a particular vivacity that’s compelling amidst the book’s grim subject matter. He befriends a stray dog, compares himself to detectives he likes on TV, and makes an adventure of it when his detecting takes him to new places. His innocence buoys the novel’s pace and makes this a surprisingly addictive read despite the dark commentary packed between the lines.

Speaking of commentary, this seems to be Djinn Patrol‘s main focus- the narration digs into many challenges that city children can face in India: the need to care for themselves and sometimes even younger children, the difficulty of getting a quality education, the prospect of working (perhaps even multiple jobs at a time) before the legal employment age. Jai and his friends are often hungry, their families living together in one room, their few belongings used over and over until they are worn beyond repair. The book conveys the difference in expectations and opportunities for Indian boys and girls beginning even before their teen years, the tension of opposing religions leading to bullying and even violence that doesn’t exclude children, and the thick smog that cannot be escaped even when it is cause for canceling school. All this before the novel even touches on the things that can happen to snatched children.

The writing itself is solid, if simplistic- it’s elegance lies in things implied but not said, rather than poignant prose. This worked well for me because it fit the young narrator in a way a more ornate style wouldn’t have. There’s also a good mix of cultural vocab mixed into the story (there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though I didn’t realize it and managed to glean almost everything from context, always a plus). The sentences are quick and straightforward, the tone generally light, and the chapters flow easily from one to the next- a bingeable read. But don’t be mistaken- it’s sad as well. This is not a book that ties up neatly with happy endings for everyone involved, which is exactly how it makes such a powerful statement about the ongoing problem of missing children cases in India. There’s certainly a depth of tragedy here, which is essentially why Jai’s perspective works so well. Anappara mentions in her afterword speaking with real Indian children and wanting to capture their “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger,” and “their determination to survive in a society that often willfully neglected them.” In this reader’s opinion, she delivers with aplomb.

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This one wasn’t quite as strong for me as a couple of other commentary novels disguised as mysteries that I’ve read this year, like Long Bright River or Disappearing Earth, but after a string of mediocre Women’s Prize reads I really did have a lot of fun reading this one and it stands out as one of the stronger longlisted titles I’ve read thus far. I feel like I’ve learned a bit about India, and I was entertained at the same time. I’m still working on a ranked list and my shortlist predictions, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see this one feature. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant