Tag Archives: Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013

Let us now praise the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Let us now praise the institution that this year was called The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve just finished reading all six shortlisted novels. They were all good, providing interesting subject matter, innovation and excellent writing. Six great reads! Here’s a reminder of the shortlist.

Hilary Mantel Bring up the Bodies

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

AM Homes May we be forgiven

Zadie Smith NW

Maria Semple Where’d you go Bernadette

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

34 AM Holmes

I don’t believe it makes much difference to women’s fiction who won: it was AM Holmes. And whoever wins, I like a literary event that foregrounds women writers. With some women writers apparently sweeping all before them (think Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling) it has been questioned whether we still need a prize for fiction by women. I wont repeat the arguments so well made by Danuta Kean in Why We Need The Women’s Prize, except to notice once again that fiction by women is disadvantaged in the review pages of literary journals and newspapers. Fewer books by women than by men are reviewed. Not surprisingly there are also fewer women reviewers.

Next year the prize will be sponsored by Baileys. Thanks to those who kept the prize afloat while a replacement sponsor was sought. Kate Mosse was awarded a well-deserved OBE in the Birthday Honours, for services to literature. She was one of the founders of the prize and chairs the board

Here are my brief reviews of the two shortlisted novels that I read most recently.


Maria Semple Where’d you go, Bernadette?

A racy read, almost a romp through contemporary electronic or wired life, set in Seattle, complete with Microsoft, TED talks, and high pressure sales ideas to ‘up-class’ the local school.

Bee is 15 (although she actually seemed much younger to me, more like 12 – no adolescent angst), and the only child of two high achieving parents. Her father Elgie is a top thinker with Microsoft, and her mother, Bernadette was once a cutting edge architect. Both parents come croppers – Bernadette through experiencing failure to preserve her twenty-mile house (a nice eco idea) and her husband by being immersed in MS before he finds his project is expendable.

The novel is the record of the disappearance of Bernadette, after some high stress middle class rage between her, her fellow Moms at Bee’s school, and her husband. Some of the plot is a little far fetched, but enjoyable for all that: eg a trip to Antarctica, the very handy on-line assistant, supposedly in India, who arranges every detail of the trip, the FBI investigation and the psychologist’s intervention.

Bee, of course, is high performing and it is she who presents the fast-paced narrative through the documentary evidence, itself saying something about the trail our lives leave: emails, letters, electronic records, faxes etc. When Bernadette wants to disappear she has to find a way to achieve it outside the electronic records. The novel concludes with a letter from Bernadette, sent via snail mail, which happily brings the family back together. The father never quite emerges as a rounded character, but comes good in the end. I wonder if this novel would also work as YA fiction?

Behind all this action are themes about the effects of the internet on our lives, how we can escape or use it, exploit it or be abused by it.

34 Life after Life

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

The device of this novel is that our heroine Ursula lives her life multiple times. There are a number of logical difficulties with this: are we to consider that this happens to everyone, or just her? Does Ursula have some special destiny, and if so what? Is this device to show that small things can lead a life along paths that are horrendous, and can the same be said of missed opportunities? So is it the case that when she failed to deny the bullying American boy a kiss it leads to rape, pregnancy, life-threatening abortion and finally death at the hands of an abusive husband thereby missing her opportunity to kill Hitler in the early ‘30s?

Ursula is born in 1910 to well-to-do parents, her father a banker, her mother a rather free spirit. She dies, nearly dies and then survives again and again. She has brothers and sisters, lovers, two husbands, servants, a rather wild aunt, and other friends who move in and out of her lives, survive or don’t survive. They experience European twentieth century history: the First World War, influenza epidemic, inter-war years, the second world war. The scenes in blitzed London are especially vivid – Ursula is an ARP warden. In another life she marries a German and survives in Berlin until the final days of the war, fearful of the prospect of Russian liberation.

So many lives mean so many deaths, so it is quite a stressful book. The deaths are Ursula’s but also her father’s, mother’s, cousin’s and just about every character at some time or other. It is an interesting way of writing a family saga, revealing different things about the people in every life.

The novel forces us to ask about the relationship between fate and freewill, and if it is possible to learn from lives we never knew we had, whether individual people really influence history. If Cleopatra’s nose had been a millimetre longer would the course of world history have been different? Discuss.

But in the end, can there be an end? Does she get her life right somehow, and if so, what is it that makes it right? Why would it ever stop, this succession of lives, there would always be another one. Ursula herself asks,

What had the Fuhrer’s apprenticeship for greatness been? Eva [Braun] shrugged, she didn’t know. “He’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.” No, thought Ursula, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become. (p332)

Now is that true, that we can choose who or what we become?


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NW by Zadie Smith

Londoners know their city through their own locality. Zadie Smith’s novel NW considers four people from north-west London, who try to find their way out of the council estate of their birth and to make an adult life in London. None of them succeeds. NW London includes Kilburn and Willeseden.

It’s a novel about place and how it holds you, especially people at the end of all the important lines: women, immigrants, school failures, alcoholics, drug addicts, children. There is a tired joke, which is also a truth, that people who live north of the Thames treat south of the river as terra incognita, and that south of the river folk think those who live north might be in the area marked there be dragons. It’s another take on the connections between identity and location. ‘Should have gone Dalston,’ says Nathan Bogle more than once. It jolts me as Dalston is my territory. And I know how different it is from Kilburn. NW is about the city I have lived in for over 30 years.

23 NW
I found myself feeling very tense as I read this novel; tense with the stress of city life, on the streets, buses and the tube, the perpetual movement of people, the need for wariness, the noise and language and the sucking hold of the place. Tense with keeping the right distance, getting ahead, not putting yourself in danger, looking out for your friends.

Out-of-towners know London by the underground map. Dalston is in Hackney, the only London borough with no tube line, so I understood how Felix has a different view:

He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not ‘Oxford Circus’ but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. ‘Wimbledon’ was countryside, ‘Pimlico’ pure science fiction. He put his index finger over Pimlico’s blue bar. It was nowhere. Who lived there? Who even passed through it?

The four protagonists are in turn the focus on one section. All born on the Caldwell Council Estate, all students at Brayton Comprehensive School, they differ in ethnicity, and in their paths away from the Caldwell.

Leah, married to an Algerian, of Irish extraction is drifting in life, not wanting to have a child. She became pregnant but had an abortion without telling Michel. Her story is told in short numbered chapters.

Keisha/Natalie is fiercely clever and Leah’s best friend. She becomes a lawyer, a barrister, but despite attaining a middle class life puts it all at risk for sexual experimentation, which her husband can’t handle. I found that Keisha/Natalie’s section was the most readable: 182 short sections, some only a sentence, some a paragraph, some longer.

Felix is a man trying to escape his demons – alcoholism, drug abuse, women. He is mugged. The section covering his day making steps to improve his life is covered in three more discursive sections, labelled with area codes: NW6, W1, NW6 again

Rodney, a shady and dangerous but attractive man, drifts on the edges of the lowest of society. His section is brief, and covers the geographic areas of a walk he takes with Keisha/Natasha up to Archway, the suicide bridge, and back. You’d have to be as high as Keisha/Natalie to spend time with him. Or live in Dalston.

Some critics have suggested that together these four sections do not make a coherent novel, there are disjunctions between them. There is an obvious point that London is like that, the different areas do not hang together. But this is a tense and jagged city, where loyalty and love are to be found mostly – but not exclusively – among the women, the impossibility of escaping the pull of one’s past, these are reflected in the structure and the style of the novel.

Zadie Smith is rightly much praised for her dialogue. Here’s some texting dialogue. Leah contacts her friend Natalie, the lawyer.

woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer
cant take private calls in pupil room what’s up
big news
You got cat aids?
free may sixth?
You catch cat aids may sixth? I am free if not in court. I big lawyer lasy these days innit Big lawyer lady jesus
shit typer
lady jesus I am getting married
on may
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests

And more conventionally, Natalie/Keisha talks with her sister, Cheryl, while holding her niece Carly.

‘Why am I being punished for making something of my life?’
‘Oh my days. Who’s punishing you Keisha? Nobody. That’s in your head. You’re paranoid , man!’
Natalie Blake could not be stopped. ‘I work hard. I came in with no reputation, nothing. I’ve built up a serious practice – do you have any idea how few –‘
‘Did you really come round here to tell me what a big woman you are these days?’
‘I came round to try and help you.’
‘But no one in here is looking for your help Keisha! This is it! I ain’t looking for you, end of.’
And now they had to transfer Carly from Natalie’s shoulder to her mother’s, a strangely delicate operation in the middle of the carnage.

I agree that her dialogue is spot on, captures the rhythms, the colloquialisms and idioms of London talk. And she is also lyrical and inventive in description. Chapter 9 reproduces google-type directions from A – B, complete with caveats. ‘These directions are for planning purposes only.’ Chapter 10 is a lyrical repeat of the journey, impressionistic, drawing on the senses, of smell, sound, sight and including a commentary on aspirations of the inhabitants. Some of it is alliterative (‘Lone Italian, loafers, lost, looking for Mayfair.’), poetic (‘Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip hop.’); shocking (‘Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster.’); but it’s all London.

Overall this novel presents a bleak view of life in London, but it moves along with verve and spirit. It deals with serious matters. I read in one blog review that this is the first novel to discuss women who do not want to be mothers. I am not sure about that. But it is the first novel I have read where the skills required to be a Londoner are laid out. Perhaps that’s why it made me feel so tense when I was reading it.

I’m currently reading all the shortlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. This is my fourth. So much good writing by women.

23 Zadie Smith


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