Last week I wrote about 14 of the 24 Women’s Prize for Fiction winners. Today the 25th winner is announced, I can’t wait! See HERE for details about the prize. And here is my top 10 ranking of previous winners.
Bonus: I’m not going to try to predict this year’s winner because I’ve only read three of the six shortlisted titles, but my favourite of the ones I’ve read is Dominicana by Angie Cruz (although Girl Women Other by Bernardine Evaristo and Weather by Jenny Offill were also both wonderful). I look forward to reading the other nominees soon.
Bonus #2: My favourite previously shortlisted nominees that didn’t win the big prize are Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Circe by Madeline Miller, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and one of my favourite books of all time, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.
10. The Road Home by Rose Tremain. This is a melancholy, lovely little story that reads a bit like a fairy tale in some ways—you have to suspend your disbelief a bit to get past some of the details, but if you do, you will find yourself engrossed in Tremain’s prose and her flawed, authentic characters. The novel tells the story of an Eastern European immigrant who moves to London after the death of his wife in order to make money to send home to his mother and daughter. Although the immigrant experience adjusting to a new place is a common theme in literature, and part of this story’s charm is its depictions of everyday moments, it somehow still feels new and fresh under Tremain’s gaze.
09. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Gritty, raunchy, darkly comic and strangely playful, this novel follows several characters of various ages around the seedy underbelly of Cork City. The book begins when someone breaks into Maureen’s house and she hits the intruder over the head with a religious statuette. To dispose of the body, she enlists her gangster son, and this sets off a chain of events that drags in a number of other dynamic characters, willingly or unwittingly. Full of slang and witty humour, it’s definitely one of the most fun books on the list but also tackles some more serious topics of poverty, addiction, and the Church.
08. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, living blissfully in Atlanta. The novel begins when Roy is falsely accused of rape and sent to prison, but the story begins with the letters he and his bride write to each other while he is incarcerated. The novel is certainly a political commentary on racial and criminal injustice, but the focus is on the deep, multidimensional relationship between these two incredibly-written characters. Even as their marriage falls apart, you never choose sides because both are so realistic and genuine; you feel as though you know them both personally. A haunting portrayal of the way incarceration imprisons not only those on the inside but also their loved ones, this is the most recent winner and a must-read for our times.
07. Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. Jakob Beer is rescued as he escapes from the Nazis, but his family sadly are not saved from their fate. Jakob spends the rest of his life sorting through the memories of his past. I looked up Anne Michaels on wikipedia after finishing this book and was not surprised to read that she is a poet; this novel was filled with such a poignant sense of grief and longing that to come from a poet makes perfect sense. While the style is prose rather than an extended work of poetry, there are plenty of beautifully artistic turns of phrase and fragments of emotion that showcase its poetic nature. And they’re bound together into a story that crosses oceans and decades to offer an affecting reflection on life, death, and the sentiments and relationships that surround both.
06. How to Be Both by Ali Smith. This novel has what would seem to be a gimmick. The story is told in two halves, and some copies of the book put one half first, while in other copies, the order is reversed. While they stand alone enough that they can equally be read in either way, each touches on themes and events from the other making them more of a double helix or a möbius strip than two disparate novellas. Occasionally, the stories intersect in a way that adds thought-provoking excitement to both. It’s experimental and stream-of-conscious, playing with duality and artistic expression, and makes for a fascinating, cyclical read.
05. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. This is the point where my ranking shifts from novels that are “very good, do consider,” to books that are “incredible, must-read.” Based on themes from Antigone, this novel tells the story of two Muslim families in the UK who diverge in the way they express and embrace their religious beliefs and familial ties. Told in five sections from the perspective of different characters in each, this novel seamlessly weaves the personal and political across all of the storylines and threads them together to create a tense and powerful climax. Shamsie expertly translates Antigone into modern times and a fresh setting that is timely and prescient, with characters so realistic you half-expect to discover that they are actual people.
04. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Nigeria has one of the most exciting literary scenes at the moment, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is arguably the jewel in the crown, but the history of the country is something I know very little about except through books like this one. And what a book it is. Set during the Biafran War, Half of a Yellow Sun follows its characters through a setting with such a strong sense of place that it is nearly a character in itself. Delving into broad themes of war, identity, and post-colonialism, but also interweaving family drama and home life, it is incredibly complex story but very readable thanks to Adichie’s masterful storytelling. You can feel the passion of her love for her homeland in the way every sense is catered to in her descriptions, and she writes with such wisdom and grace for both the story and its characters.
03. The Power by Naomi Alderman. “What if the power was on the other side?” is a fairly common conceit that is often done in ways ranging from ridiculous to offensive. The effect of privilege is so systematic that to reverse it would likely create an entirely different society, but Alderman doesn’t just flip the gender roles, she explores what a sudden shift would lead to, the gradual world it would create. Part science fiction and part historical fiction (but where the “historical” time period is the present day, as the novel is framed by a time five thousand years in the future), The Power is both a fantastical dystopia and an allegorical look at systematic oppression, gender inequality, and rape culture. It examines who has power, how they use it, and the way it can be corrupted and politicized over the course of centuries. I found it absolutely enthralling.
02. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Set aside a day to read this book. I recommend boiling the kettle for a cup of tea, lighting a candle, putting on some soft music, and then devouring it in one sitting. This book is stream-of-consciousness in its truest form, not an affected, deliberately-fragmented style but a genuine outpouring of words and thoughts and emotions. Naturally, that makes it a difficult read, as does the harshness of the content, the abuse that befalls its unnamed narrator. But it’s not misery porn, and it’s not unreadable; instead the prose flows lyrically, poetically, artistically. It really captures feeling through its form in a beautiful and also heart-wrenching way. (side note: if you’re not as much of an experimentally-minded reader, I recommend picking up McBride’s also-fantastic The Lesser Bohemians to get a sense of her style without quite as intense a voice or haunting a plot).
01. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Everywhere you look you will see glowing praise of this novel, and for good reason. It is a masterpiece of a book, both in the elegance of the detail through which it revisits the Iliad—Miller is a classics scholar and teacher—and in the richness of the characters and relationships that she imbues with new life and depth. The prose is direct and yet full of vibrant lyricism in a way that is so true to the Greek style, and the backstories she creates and fleshes out for Achilles and Patroclus are so vivid and authentic. Complex, heart-wrenching (soul-wrenching?), affecting from start to finish. Although it’s been over four years since I read this book, I feel slightly breathless writing about it now, so strong is its presence in my memory; one of those books that will stay with you forever. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough, and I would be hard-pressed to imagine a more deserving winner.