The Women’s Prize shortlist of 2019 was one of our favourites for years. Kate Williams, the chair of judges, has revealed that the panel deliberated for four hours to choose a winner. The eventual winner, Tayari Jones for her fourth novel An American Marriage, said “I think, in these times, we need women’s voices more than ever,” and we could not agree more.
Our money was on Madeleine Miller’s Circe, which regular readers know we were bowled over by last month. We felt that Miller’s scholarly classicism combined with her hyper-engaging prose style would once again prove a hit with the judges (her first novel, The Song of Achilles won what was then called the Orange Prize in 2012).
We also thought Pat Barker was in with a shout for Silence of the Girls, her 14th novel, which similarly offered a feminist slant on a Homeric epic. The central character in her novel is not a witch from The Odyssey as Circe was but Briseis, Achilles’s concubine from The Iliad, who is awarded to this great Greek fighter as a prize after his army sacks a town neighbouring Troy. Agamemnon, another of the most powerful of Greek warriors, seizes Briseis from Achilles. Achilles’s desire for vengeance against Agamemnon forms the engine of the plot of The Iliad. For most of Barker’s retelling, Briseis is the first-person narrator, offering a feminist slant on a woman who was essentially chattel. Barker also interestingly positions Achilles as a man who is as articulate as he is physically brave and explores how these qualities sit uneasily alongside each other. As she did with her Regeneration trilogy of novels (the last of which, Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995), she makes the reader think about the pity and rage of war.
The outsider in this race was Oyinkan Braithwaite for her brilliantly titled debut novel My Sister the Serial Killer. A typical line of this Lagos-set novel reads: “On their one month anniversary she stabbed him in the bathroom. She didn’t mean to of course.” Ayoola is Korede’s sister and has dispatched a third boyfriend “in self-defence” when the novel opens. This not a crime thriller, however, but an often-funny exploration of the relationship between two sisters. Whilst we enjoyed the subversive qualities of this novel and its freshness, it’s one that we felt ended up being less than the sum of its parts as the narrative became increasingly crowded with different elements.
Diana Evans has seemed to be an underrated writer for much of her career and we are keen enough on her writing to have read Ordinary People, her third novel, when it was first published last year long before even The Women’s Prize longlist had been announced. It’s a novel we have a great deal of affection for, not least because it portrays the London we not only recognise but live in. Ordinary People made us realise, sharply, how rare that is. As Evans has commented, the absence of black domestic life in British fiction feels like “a huge invisibility” and there was so much pleasure for us as readers to be had in reading about characters that felt like us and our friends (Melissa is a magazine journalist with young children who feels “Motherhood is an obliteration of the self”). We had high hopes for this novel but were disappointed by the loosening of narrative propulsion as it progressed. We’re looking forward to what seeing Evans writes next.
Milkman, Anna Burns’s third novel won the Booker Prize 2019. This is a book, with its apparently stream of consciousness narrative, that we really struggled with when it was first published.
In the same way that Trainspotting has nothing to do with steam engines, there are no jolly dispensers of glass bottles crammed with full fat milk here. Instead, it charts the story of an 18 year old woman coerced into a relationship with a far older man during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
We have revisited the novel since it won the Booker and found it no less challenging (it begins: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died”) but decided that reading it was worth the effort.
This, in many ways, is the ultimate Marmite novel, whose fans and detractors have surprised us equally. Many readers have said how straightforward and enjoyable they found it which wasn’t the case for us, for all that we found it an ultimately rewarding read.
Now, to our winner! Fans of Jones’s An American Marriage already included Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, and Jones won respect and admiration earlier this week even among those who haven’t read her novel for choosing to be interviewed at HMP Brixton on National Prison Radio. Her novel is about incarceration, after all, and the journey of a man from ambitious member of the bourgeoisie to ex-con in the space of five years. The novel begins: “We’re not your garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes where the husband goes to bed with his laptop under his pillow and the wife dreams about her blue-box jewelry. I was young, hungry and on the come-up. Celestial was an artist, intense and gorgeous,” Roy is just married to Celestial when he is accused of a rape that she knows he cannot have committed. What a moving, humane novel this is and we’re so grateful to The Women’s Prize for introducing us to it.
We’re looking forward to March next year, when the longlist for The Women’s Prize 2020 should be announced and we’ll have another list of wonderful books to read.