Women's Prize for Fiction 2019 Longlist: Round-Up

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Whilst I leave you to read my thoughts (so far! This post will be updated every time I finish each of the books that still remain outstanding on the longlist), I am going to need a lie down. Since the Women's Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, these sixteen amazing women have guided me through a plethora of hard-hitting, emotional topics and honestly, my heart needs a break. It needs to sit in a dark room somewhere, put a face-mask on and watch something mindless like Masterchef to recover.

The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker
Greek myths all too often focus on the stories of men - their glories, their victories, their losses. Most people I know can name at least one Greek/Roman male hero, not many can name a female one. Like in most things, men want to hear stories about other men and, when a majority of history subscribes to that pattern, why would classical myth be any different? In its conception, I feel as though Pat Barker intended The Silence of the Girls to address this gargantuan disparity but honestly, I do not even think that the book would pass the Bechdel Test. Briseis' every waking thought revolves around Achilles: what he wants from her, what he is going to do with her... until Briseis dissolves altogether and he steps in and takes over the narrative voice. This is Achilles' story and, no matter what Pat Barker intended to do, there was no voice given to the voiceless here.
... Although there were weird Northern-English colloquialisms by the bucketload. Were they supposed to make up for it? I am starting to think so.

Swan Song, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
Everyone has heard of Truman Capote and everyone has heard of his fall from grace. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott turns an examination of his life and the choices that he made into a non-fiction novel that I can imagine that Capote himself would have enjoyed. It is honest, catty and a little biting, evoking a time in old Hollywood that most of us can only dream of.

Circe, Madeleine Miller
Unlike Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, Madeleine Miller offers true agency to Circe in this spellbinding, sweeping novel that crosses an untold number of centuries... Despite the fact that, let us be honest, agency is pretty hard to give to someone who has been banished to a desert island for all eternity. But, if anyone could do it, Madeleine Miller can. The lyrical, intricate prose traversed, not a two-dimensional journey into villainy like her portrayal in the original myths, but a young girl growing into the form of a goddess, a sea witch; someone beautiful and glorious and larger-than-life. Circe has goals, freedoms, more than a few limitations (definitely more than just the obvious); she's naive, bitter, reckless, overly cautious.
And, for a figure of classical mythology, Circe was crafted in a way that undoubtedly made her feel like a real human woman, in all of her multilayered, contradictory glory.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
I wish I had loved this one. I mean, Obama loved it, so why couldn’t I?
But, whilst American Marriage explores the woeful over-representation of black men in the American prison system in a much-needed and timely way that manages to garner much insight into the presence of racial bias and unequal power structures, it unfortunately seems to waver when it focuses more on the aspects of the titular marriage itself.
This is primarily due to the degree to which Tayari Jones places Celestial and Roy firmly within the traditional, rigid (actually rather toxic) binaries of their gender identities. The marriage is seen, primarily through the viewpoint of Roy, although it remains unchallenged by either the narrative, the author or the characters around him, as a contract that allows him total possession and ownership of Celestial. Until death do them part and all that, but only if he wants to.
He was a chauvinistic, selfish, violent, bad tempered misogynist and his inclusion in a portrayal of a marriage that made a longlist like the Women's Prize, without him being kicked to the curb, defeated by Celestial, or her being made stronger by his absence, truly made for some truly puzzling reading.
This confusion on my part was further impounded by the double-standards giving to cheating and virginity, depending on which gender the ideas were applied to, and the fact that, the novel pauses in its polemic to randomly mention how the one gay character in all of its pages, died in the midst of the AIDs epidemic. I mean, talk about burying your gays. And, as if it couldn’t get anymore close-minded and frankly, rather Shakespearian, American Marriage effectively cumulates in a fist-fight over which of her two love interests gets Celestial, regardless of her own feelings on the matter. And honestly, at that point, all I wanted her to do was tell them both to fuck off and choose herself.

Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
Ghost Wall is an intense and masterful novel about the harrowing realities of a family affected by domestic violence and the lengths that people go to justify their behaviour. Through her masterful (and often quiet) examination of the natures of mob mentality and the incredible strength that is needed to act against it, Sarah Moss has created a tense, atmospheric book of barely 150 pages, that certainly packs one hell of a punch.

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli
In a weirdly similar vein to fellow longlisted book, Silence of the Girls, Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive too, fails horrendously in its main aim: to give a voice to the voiceless. Centrally revolving on two main groups of missing children: those, in the present day, fleeing over the Mexican-American border, only to be kept in Trump’s detention centres; and those somewhere in the indeterminate past, Native Americans who fell to colonisation.
But, as I need to point out before going any further, not all members of the Apache communities were wiped out in centuries-long mass genocides committed by their European invaders. A bloody lot of them were, but not all of them. And, approaching the community as though they have been wiped off the face of the Earth, disrespects the survivors who have gone on to live, and create, and contribute in so many amazing ways. I just kept waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for it to acknowledge the fact that they still exist in present day and yet, that moment never seemed to come. Instead, I had to watch whilst apparently-liberal characters played cowboys and Indians, and re-enacted famous massacres.
And, this is just the subplot, the main narrative strand was a whole different, unstructured mess. This is because, instead of it focussing (as it was supposed to do) on the experiences of unaccompanied children migrant children, it revolves entirely on the breakdown of a marriage.  Leave him, or stay with him... I really couldn’t give a shit.
The whole mirroring, if that was indeed the aim, was wholly offensive to both the communities who had been victims of genocide and then systematically ignored by the narrative, and the children wandering through the desert who risk starvation, dehydration, imprisonment and traffickers to make it across the border. And, if this book earned its place on this longlist simply because it “tackled” the latter subjects, I would rather it had not. Because this was bare minimum. At best.

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