Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Croft, Grudova, O’Farrell) & Shortlist Predictions
The Women’s Prize shortlist will be announced on Wednesday the 26th. I’ve managed to read a few more novels from the longlist and started another (Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks), which would take me up to 6 read out of 16. I have a couple of others on order from the library (Kennedy and Patel), but will only bother to read them if they are shortlisted.
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
I was intrigued by the publication history of this one: Croft first wrote it in Spanish, then produced an English-language version which, in the USA, was marketed as a memoir illustrated with her own photographs. Here in the UK, though, Charco Press published it as part of their new range of untranslated fiction – with no photos, alas. So, it’s clear that this is thinly veiled autobiography; literally all that may have been changed is the character names.
The protagonist is ‘Amy’, who lives in a tornado-ridden Oklahoma and whose sister, ‘Zoe’ – a handy A to Z of growing up there – has a mysterious series of illnesses that land her in hospital. The third person limited perspective reveals Amy to be a protective big sister who shoulders responsibility: “There is nothing in the world worse than Zoe having her blood drawn. Amy tries to show her the pictures [she’s taken of Zoe’s dog] at just the right moment, just right before the nurse puts the needle in”.
The girls are home-schooled and Amy, especially, develops a genius for languages, receiving private tutoring in Russian from Sasha, a Ukrainian former student of their father’s. Both sister are more than a little in love with Sasha. They alternate between competing for attention and indulging their joint passions – such as for the young Russian figure-skating couple who sweep the Winter Olympics. Amy starts college at 15, which earns her unwanted attention among her classmates, and struggles with her mental health before deciding to see the world. Despite periods of estrangement, her relationship with Zoe is what grounds her.
In a sense this is a simple chronological story, told in a matter-of-fact way. Yet each of its vignettes – some just a paragraph long – is perfectly chosen to reveal the family dynamic and the moment in American history. Detailed chapter headings continue the narrative and sometimes contain a shocking truth. What Croft does so brilliantly is to chart the accretion of ordinary and landmark events that form a life; Amy realizes this as she looks back at a packet of her photographs: “laid out step by step like this, more or less in order, the pictures also form a kind of path.”
Initially, I had my doubts as to whether this should have been eligible for the Women’s Prize. In the end it didn’t matter whether it was presented as memoir or autofiction, so true was it to the experience of 1990s girlhood, as well as to sisterhood and coming of age at any time in history. It reminded me strongly of Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso, but felt that little bit more universal in how it portrays family ties, ambition, and life’s winding path. (See also Annabel’s review for Shiny New Books.)
With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.
Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova
In 2017 I reviewed Grudova’s surreal story collection, The Doll’s Alphabet, describing its tales as “perverted fairytales or fragmentary nightmares.” Okay then, let’s continue in that perverted, nightmarish vein. Holly, new to the country/city, finds a room in a shared flat and a job as an usher at the Paradise Cinema, which shows a random assortment of art films and cult classics. The building is so low-rent it’s almost half derelict, and the staff take full advantage of the negligent management to get up to all sorts of sexual shenanigans, as well as drinking and drug-taking, while on duty. Holly and her co-workers are truly obsessed with the cinema, watching every showing at work but also hosting all-night movie marathons in their apartments. “The outside world, all of its news, faded away, and the movies became my main mirror of the world,” she confesses. “They were a necessary evil, customers, so that we, the true devotees, could have access to the screen, our giant godlike monument.”
The title is simultaneously ironic and an homage to Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), and the chapters are named after particular films. A change of ownership forces the Paradise to become more mainstream – hello, Marvel flicks and hipster snacks – but a series of horrific accidents and deliberate acts makes it seem like a cursed place. Aping movie genres, perhaps, Children of Paradise starts off as an offbeat stoner comedy and by the end approaches horror to an extent I didn’t expect. The content becomes increasingly sordid, visceral, with no opportunity missed to mention bodily fluids and excretions. I’m not notably opposed to gross-out humour, but the whole thing felt quite distasteful as well as miserable. (Public library e-book)
My general feeling about these first two books, and probably a few others from the longlist (Crooks, McKenzie, Paull, et al.), is that the judges are trying to showcase the breadth of women’s writing: ‘Hey, guys, women can write autofiction and horror and humour and patois and speculative fiction and everything in between!’ But I don’t think these more niche or genre fiction representatives will make it any further in the race, especially because each may have been championed by a different judge.
Where the judges will find common ground will be on the standard stuff that always gets shortlisted: fairly run-of-the-mill character- and issue-driven contemporary or historical fiction. That makes it sound like I’m being dismissive, but in fact I do generally like much of the fiction that gets shortlisted for the WP: it’s readable book club fodder. It’s just maybe not inventive in the way that certain longlist titles can be. On which note, er, see the below!
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
What a relief it was to wholeheartedly enjoy this sumptuous work of historical fiction, after the disappointment that was Hamnet (though perhaps I’ll feel more kindly towards the latter when I reread it for Literary Wives in November).
Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici is a historical figure who died at age 16, having been married off from her father’s Tuscan palazzo as a teenager to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. She was reported to have died of a “putrid fever” but the suspicion has persisted that her husband actually murdered her, a story perhaps best known via Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.”
The focus is on the final year of Lucrezia’s life, but in flashbacks we meet her as a rebellious girl with a talent for drawing and a fascination with animals. At first it appears that Alfonso esteems her for her spiritedness – he gives her a painting of a stone marten as a betrothal gift, after all, and has her depicted with paintbrush in hand – but as the gradual storyline meets up with the 1561 spotlight, it becomes clear that she is only valued for her ability to produce an heir. However spacious and opulent they are, it is impossible to forget that Lucrezia, as a noblewoman, is confined to the edifices owned by her father or her husband.
O’Farrell’s usual present-tense narration is engaging throughout, and the two long chapters either side of the midpoint, one concerning her wedding day and the other the preparation for her portrait, are particularly absorbing. I was convinced I knew how this story would end, yet the author pulls off a delicious surprise. This is ripe for the miniseries treatment, not least because it is so attentive to visuals: the architecture of the main buildings, the lavish clothing, the colours, and the eye for what makes a good painting. Scenes are even described in terms of a spatial arrangement appreciated from afar: how three figures form a triangle in the centre of a room; how two people on a balcony bisect the view from a window.
Despite the length, this was thoroughly engrossing and one I’d recommend to readers of Geraldine Brooks and Tracy Chevalier. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)
The other nominees I’ve read are:
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
My predicted shortlist:
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin
An overall winner? Perhaps Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, or an unprecedented repeat win from Barbara Kingsolver or Maggie O’Farrell.
(See also Laura’s predictions post.)
What have you read from the longlist so far? Which of these books are calling to you?
Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal
Today I’m taking part in the “blog blast” for Painting Time by Maylis de Kerangal (translated from the French by Jessica Moore), which is published today by MacLehose Press.
This is the third novel I’ve read by de Kerangal, after her 2017 Wellcome Book Prize winner, Mend the Living, and 2019’s The Cook. Painting Time resembles the former in the way it revels in niche vocabulary and the latter in that it slowly builds up a portrait of the central character. But all three books could be characterized as deep dives into a particular subject – the human body, gastronomy, and painting, respectively.
The protagonist of Painting Time is Paula Karst, one of 20-some art students who arrive at the Institut de Peinture in Brussels in the autumn of 2007 to learn trompe l’oeil technique. They’re taught to painstakingly imitate every variety of wood and stone so their murals will look as convincing as the real thing. It’s a gruelling course, with many hours spent on their feet every day.
Years later, the only classmates Paula has kept up with are Jonas, her old flatmate, with whom she had a sort-of-almost-not-quite relationship, and their Scottish friend Kate. The novel opens with the three of them having a reunion in Paris. Given this setup, I expected de Kerangal to follow all three characters from 2007 to the near past, but the book sticks closely to Paula, such that the only secondary characters who come through clearly are her parents.
It’s intriguing to see the work that comes Paula’s way after a degree in decorative painting, including painting backdrops for a Moscow-set film of Anna Karenina and the job of a lifetime: working on a full-scale replica of the prehistoric animal paintings of the Lascaux Caves (Lascaux IV). The final quarter of the novel delves into the history of Lascaux, which was discovered in 1940 and open to the public on and off until the late 1960s. Deep time abuts the troubled present as Paula contemplates what will last versus what is ephemeral.
As de Kerangal did with medical terminology in Mend the Living, so here she relishes art words: colours, tools, techniques; names for types of marble and timber (Paula’s own surname is a word for limestone caves). The long sentences accrete to form paragraphs that stretch across multiple pages. I confess to getting a bit lost in these, and wanting more juicy interactions than austere character study. However, the themes of art and history are resonant. If you’ve enjoyed de Kerangal’s prose before, you will certainly want to read this, too.
My thanks to MacLehose Press for access to an e-copy via NetGalley.
Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer
Three memoirs remain on the shortlist; three windows onto living with disability or caring for a relative with an incapacitating mental illness.
First up is a visual artist’s account of growing up with spina bifida, entering Disabled culture, and forming a collaborative style all her own.
Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (2020)
“My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her legs the same length. In 1958, when she was born, 90% of children with her condition died before age two. Lehrer’s mother, Carole, who grew up in a family pharmacy business and had worked as a medical researcher, was her daughter’s dogged health advocate. Carole fought for Riva even though she was caught up in her own chronic pain after a botched back surgery that left her addicted to painkillers.
Lehrer went to a special school for the disabled in Ohio. It was racially integrated (rare at that time) and offered children physical therapy and normal experiences like Girl Scouts and day camp. But it was clear the teachers didn’t expect these children to achieve anything or have a family life; home ec classes just taught how to wash up from a wheelchair and make meals for one. One horrible day, a substitute teacher locked a classroom door and hectored the children, saying their parents must have drunk and fornicated and they were the wages of sin.
Between the routine or emergency surgeries and family heartaches, Lehrer grew up to attend art school at the University of Cincinnati and Art Institute of Chicago. Professors (most of them male) found her work grotesque and self-indulgent, and she struggled with how to depict her body. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, even a wife (though in the late 1980s, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized). In 1996 she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and it was a revelation. She learned that Disabled (like Deaf) is a cultural identity as much as a physical reality, adopted vocabulary like crip (a reclaimed term, like queer) and ableism, and began painting fellow artists with dwarfism, prostheses, or wheelchairs.
Becoming a member of the Medical Humanities faculty as well as a visiting artist at two Chicago universities, the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern, gave Lehrer access to Gross Anatomy Labs, where she found in the historical collections – just as she had at the Mütter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia – a fetus in a jar with her very condition. Knowing that she might be the first Disabled person her budding doctors met, she was determined to give them an “inclusive vision” of “the reality of human divergence.” She would have the medical students draw one of the jarred specimens, not as an oddity but as an individual, and give a 15-minute presentation about someone who lives with that disability.
Golem Girl is a touching family memoir delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most of them named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and – what truly lifts it above the pack – a miniature art gallery, with reproductions of paintings from various of Lehrer’s series as well as self-portraits, family portraits, and photographs. “I fiercely wanted to see a gallery filled with portraits of luminous crips,” she writes; “I suspected I was going to have to make them myself.” And that is just what she has done. The “Circle Stories” featured the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and “Mirror Shards” included animal daimons, while “The Risk Pictures” of some of her personal heroes were daringly collaborative: she would give the subject an hour alone in her studio with their portrait in progress and allow them to amend it as they wished. Much of her work has bright colors and involves anatomical realism and symbols personal to herself and/or the subject – with Frida Kahlo an acknowledged influence.
I’ve now (just about) read the whole Barbellion Prize shortlist. For how it illuminates a life of being different – through queerness in addition to disability, engages with the academic fields of anatomy and Disability studies, and showcases the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
- Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
- I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
“The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up even when it’s as impossible as flying around the ceiling. Whoever has authority can remove your clothes and display your stitched-up monster body to crowds of young white-coated men. You’re an assemblage of parts that lack gender and those elusive things called feelings.”
“‘Normal’ beauty is unmarked, smooth, shiny, upright; but my gaze began to slip past normal beauty as if it was coated in baby oil. I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.”
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
See my introductory post for more about the Barbellion Prize, which is in its first year and will be awarded on Friday “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.”
I will review the final two on the shortlist, The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and Kika & Me by Amit Patel, tomorrow.
Review Book Catch-Up: Bamforth, McGrath, Mertz
Today I have a book of medico-philosophical musings, a triptych of novels about the resonant moments of a Canadian childhood, and a varied collection of ekphrastic poems.
Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook by Iain Bamforth (2020)
A doctor based in Strasbourg, Iain Bamforth offers a commonplace book full of philosophical musings on medicine and wellness from the ancient world to today. All through December I would read just a few pages at a time as a palate cleanser between larger chunks of other books. Most of the entries are under three pages in length, with some one-sentence dictums interspersed. The point of reference is broadly European, with frequent allusions to English, French, and German literature (Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann) and to Greek thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The themes include memory, overtreatment, technology, and our modern wellness culture. If you’re equally interested in medicine and philosophy, this is a perfect bedside book for you; if you only gravitate towards one or the other, it’s possible that you could run low on patience for the high-brow rumination. My favourite piece was on “panicology,” and two stand-out lines are below.
“Prognostication is where writers and doctors resemble each other most.”
“A proper attitude to death can be a source of life. That is medicine’s only profundity.”
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath (2011–19)
I’m indulging in one last listen to our holiday music compilations as I write, before putting everything away until a hoped-for ‘Christmas in July’ with family and friends. Yesterday I devoured Broke City, the third novella in Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa Trilogy, in one sitting and treasured all the Christmas and pine tree references: they bind the book together but also connect it satisfyingly back to Book 1, Santa Rosa, which opened with Christine’s neighbour preparing a Christmas cake one summer. That annual ritual and its built-in waiting period take on new significance when the adult Christine’s life changes suddenly.
In this trio of linked narratives about Christine’s 1960s Edmonton childhood, totem objects and smells evoke memories that persist for decades: Pine-Sol, her parents’ cigarettes, the local meat-packing plant. Even at age seven, Christine is making synaesthetic links between colours and scents as she ponders language and imagines other lives. That her recollections – of a carnival, the neighbourhood grocery store, queasy road trips to her grandmother’s in Saskatchewan, a drive-in movie, and Christmas Eve with her father’s side of the family – so overlap with my late-1980s mental flipbook proves not that suburban Maryland and upstate New York (where I grew up and my mother’s home turf, respectively) are so similar to Alberta, but that this is the universal stuff of a later 20th-century North American childhood.
The other night, discussing The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, my book club noted how difficult it is to capture childhood in all its joy and distress. McGrath does so superbly, exploiting the dramatic irony between what Christine overhears and what she understands. Readers know her parents’ marriage is in trouble because she never sees them laughing or happy, and she hears her mother complain to her father about his drinking. We know the family is struggling because a man from the City delivers a box of Spam, standard issue to all those who are out of work over the winter. A simple mishearing (“clatteral,” “brain tuber”; thinking that an abattoir sounds “like a fancy ballroom”) can be a perfect example of the child perspective, too. Meanwhile, the pop culture references situate the story in the time period.
Towards the end of Broke City, young Christine declares, “I shall be unusual.” As we root for the girl to outrun her sadder memories and forge a good life, we hope that – like all of us – she’ll find a balance between the ordinary and the exceptional through self-knowledge. While Broke City was my favourite and could probably stand alone, it’s special to chart how moments turn into memories across the three books. I’d recommend the trilogy to readers of Tove Ditlevsen, Tessa Hadley, and Elizabeth Hay. I particularly loved the hybrid-poetry style of the Prologue to Santa Rosa (similar to what Bernardine Evaristo employs), so I would also be interested to try one of McGrath’s two poetry collections.
Some favourite passages:
“he walks at the same time everyday summer and winter
early morning when the day still makes promises” (Santa Rosa)
“Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world. … Christine is the girl that used to live here, but the girl has disappeared. Her ghost is here, existing parallel to the person she is now. How did this happen? There must have been something she wasn’t paying attention to, something she didn’t see coming.” (Broke City)
With thanks to Wendy McGrath and Edmonton’s NeWest Press for the e-copies for review. I learned about the books from Marcie; see her appreciation of McGrath’s work at Buried in Print.
Color and Line by Carole Mertz (2021)
“Ekphrastic” was a new vocabulary word for me – or, if I’d heard it before, I needed a reminder. It refers to poetry written to describe or respond to artworks. Many of Carole Mertz’s poems, especially in the first section, attest to her love of the visual arts. This is the Ohio church organist’s first full-length collection after the 2019 chapbook Toward a Peeping Sunrise and extensive publication in literary magazines. She was inspired by art ranging in date from 1555 to 2019. “Come Share a Glass with Me,” for instance, is a prose poem that imagines the story behind a Van Gogh. I loved the line “The ewer sits expectant” in a short poem capturing The Staircase by Xavier Mellery.
One could look up all of the artworks discussed, but the descriptions here are so richly detailed that I often didn’t feel I needed to. Two paintings in a row depict sisters. A poem about Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist draws on the Bible story, but also on its many portrayals through art history. Other topics include concern for the Earth and beloved works of literature. I particularly enjoyed “The Word in Joseph’s Hand,” a Christmas hymn that can be sung to the tune of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” and a haiku about a cardinal, “a flash of bright red / … in the garden”. Below is my favourite of the poems; it incorporates the titles of 14 books, nine of them by Anne Tyler. See if you can spot them all!
Color and Line was released by Kelsay Books on the 2nd. My thanks to Carole Mertz for the e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
And, just for fun, put a description of or link to your favourite Bernie-in-mittens meme in the comments.
Classic of the Month: The Moon and Sixpence
This was indeed the perfect follow-up to Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin, the SelfMadeHero graphic novel I reviewed earlier in the month. W. Somerset Maugham’s short novel functioned like a prequel for me because, whereas Dori focuses on Gauguin’s later life in the South Pacific, Maugham concentrates on his character Charles Strickland’s attempt to make a living as a painter in Paris.
The Moon and Sixpence – the unusual title comes from the TLS reviewer’s description of the protagonist in Of Human Bondage as so absorbed in reaching for the moon that he doesn’t notice the sixpence at his feet – is narrated by an unnamed author drawn into Strickland’s orbit through his wife Amy Strickland’s attendance at London literary soirées. He hasn’t gotten to know the couple very well at all when he hears that Charles, a stockbroker, has abandoned his family and left for Paris to pursue painting – a hobby for which he’s never previously shown any aptitude.
Amy sends the narrator off to Paris to talk sense into her husband, but Charles never shows the least remorse. The narrator marvels at his insouciance and utter conviction that he is meant to be an artist.
He was single-hearted in his aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself – many can do that – but others. He had a vision. Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.
I noted familiar themes from Of Human Bondage (published in 1915, four years prior to The Moon and Sixpence), especially the artist’s struggle, nomadism and the threat of poverty. Dirk Stroeve, the talentless Dutch painter who becomes friendly with the narrator in Paris and recognizes Strickland’s brilliance even as he lets the man walk all over him, reminded me of the happy-go-lucky Thorpe Athelny in Bondage.
At less than a third of the length of that earlier novel, though, The Moon and Sixpence struck me as a condensed parable about genius and sacrifice.
Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. … It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets. … There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to … mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
This is a fascinating character study, whether or not you’re aware of Gauguin’s life as the inspiration, and would be a great introduction to Maugham’s work if you’ve not read him before. (Secondhand copy from Bookbarn International.)