The Women’s Prize for Fiction has turned twenty and to celebrate they are hosting a live event at the Piccadilly Theatre in London with past judges and readings by famous actors to debate books from the past 10 years and crown one as the “best of the best.” (They are only considering the past 10 winners because they had the same competition on the prize’s 10th anniversary.) Let me begin this post by stating the obvious. Each of these books is already a winner. These are all important novels that deserve to be celebrated – no matter my opinions about the quality of some over others. I’ve been a long-time fan of this prize and I revel in the opportunity to celebrate brilliant female authors. The point of this event and any prize is to debate and discuss books that deserve attention in a compassionate, caring and fun manner.
Choosing a favourite between these ten books is particularly hard because they are all so good. The only two out of these ten winners I haven’t read are “Home” by Marilynne Robinson and “The Road Home” by Rose Tremain. I need to rectify this as from reading Robinson’s novel “Lila” this year and Tremain’s book of short stories “The American Lover” last year, I admire how skilled and intelligent each of these novelists are so I should get to their prize-winning titles.
Maybe I should start by commenting on which books from the ten I liked the least or have stuck with me the least since reading them years ago. I remember Tea Obrecht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” to be a really imaginative and moving novel, but I can’t remember much detail about it. For me, the best fiction is that which makes a long-term impact where scenes or characters or quotes will stick with you for many years. Although I read Zadie Smith and Adichie’s novels years before Obrecht, I can still recall some things about these other novels better than “The Tiger’s Wife.” Perhaps if I were to revisit it I’d feel differently now.
I do remember certain scenes and characters from A.M. Homes “May We Be Forgiven” and, while there were aspects of it I admired, overall I didn’t think it worked totally as a novel. I’ve written about this novel on the blog before and I still believe that Homes' style of writing makes her a better short story writer than a novelist. When Homes book won in 2013, I had been hoping Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Flight Behaviour” would have won instead. Again, perhaps if I were to read the novel again my opinion would change.
It’s interesting that the winners for the past two years have been quite edgy, experimental novels. In “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing” Eimear McBride creates her own form of narrative that seeps out somewhere from the sub-regions of consciousness. It’s not speech or straightforward thoughts or an outside perspective, but the deep inner language of experience mixed with memory. Equally, Ali Smith is the triumphant trickster of language (as her new short story collection “Public Library” I reviewed yesterday again shows) and in “How To Be Both” she uses a specific form to get at subjects few other writers can. Not only does she make us question the multi-levelled meanings of words, but the construction under which we read since the book can be read from back to front or front to back. Plus it’s fun! It gets people talking and asking: which way did you read it around?
Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” had me from the opening of the book. A boy likes to spend his days doing nothing but reading and snorkelling in the sea. This is my ultimate dream life! What follows is such a winding, beautifully-plotted novel with richly fascinating figures from history like Frida Kahlo, Leon Trotsky and J. Edgar Hoover who highlight some of the most important ideological struggles in the past century. This is a big novel that I was swept away by and didn’t want to end. Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles” is simply a gorgeous novel taking two mythological figures and creating for them a male-male love affair which is poignant and fully realistic. This is such a passionate, tragic and beautiful story which I totally fell for.
However, if I’m forced to pick one Best I think it would have to be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun.” It’s a phenomenally epic novel that I believe to be one of the best novels about both love and war written in the past ten… twenty… however many years. The writing is precise. The scenes are vivid and memorable. The characters are lively where each one possesses complex, personal points of view. It gives the world a totally different perspective on a national tragedy by showing specific aspects of the civil war in Nigeria in the 60s as well as making universal statements about the victims of war. I was mesmerized reading it and finished feeling shaken by the story. It’s a classic. Tomorrow I’ll be fascinated to see if the judges agree with my choice.
So those are my thoughts about these novels. What do you think? Which would you choose as your best out of the ten?
Kate Mosse gives a fantastic summary of the prize’s history and the reason why it’s so important to have a fiction prize for women here.
Past judges have come back to discuss each book in turn on BBC’s Women’s Hour here.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction site has a comprehensive reading guide for all ten winners here.