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?
Review Book Catch-Up: Dennis, Galloway, Leland-St. John and Sampson
Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.
Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis
Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.
“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”
“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway
The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)
Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.
Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).
You can read “I Said Coffee” and a few more of her poems online.
With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.
Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson
Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.
Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.
Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?
“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Blog Tour Review: The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt
Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Two Mother–Daughter Author Pairs for Mother’s Day
This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.
The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart
From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.
Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]
Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart
In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.
She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.
It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.
Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]
A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”
The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor
Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.
Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]
Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift
If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]