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I’ve took some time calming down from the shock of the shortlist decision for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Few people expected this particular group of novels! It was a lot of fun discovering what was on the list alongside Anna James which you can watch in this video we made together. But we were both stunned that two of our favourites “Ghost Wall” and “Lost Children Archive” weren’t included and I was really disappointed not to see one of my favourite novels from last year “Swan Song” on the shortlist. I’d also spent a lovely morning on Saturday discussing the longlist with a shadow panel I’m on that includes Antonia Honeywell and Eleanor Franzen. They were also big fans of Moss and Luiselli’s novels. Eleanor wrote a really impassioned response to the official shortlist on her blog here and Antonia spent a morning discussing the list and prizes on her Monday morning radio book show on Chiltern Voice. Our shadow group formed our own shortlist out of the longlisted novels which you can see in the photo of us here. Personally, I stand by our choices over the official ones selected.

Looking at the list as a whole, it’s great to see that it includes a racially diverse group of authors. Only one debut novel is included and the books were all put out by a variety of publishers. However, what’s most surprising is that the judges chose some novels with quite similar themes considering that both Barker and Miller’s novels are retelling of Greek myths from a female narrator’s point of view. Also, Evans and Jones’ novels deal with the breakdown of relationships in a modern time period. Usually the groups listed include a wider breadth of themes. Of course, looking at the novels’ subjects and styles more closely does reveal more variations. Aside from content and looking at reputation, it feels a bit disappointing that novels such as “Milkman”, “An American Marriage” and “Circe” which have all been so popular and sold so well should be getting more attention over lesser-known gems that I loved reading such as “Swan Song” and “Praise Song for the Butterflies”.

Antonia, Eleanor and I with the six novels (by Moss, Luiselli, McFadden, Broder, Greenberg-Jephcott and Miller) that we selected as our shadow panel shortlist.

Antonia, Eleanor and I with the six novels (by Moss, Luiselli, McFadden, Broder, Greenberg-Jephcott and Miller) that we selected as our shadow panel shortlist.

It’s really tricky trying to guess what novel might win from this list. It’ll be quite significant if “Milkman” goes on to win having already won the Booker Prize last year. In a way it’s excellent that this novel which was fairly obscure has gone on to be one of the most talked about books in the past year thanks to these two book prizes. But I personally had some issues with the circular nature of the narrative style which made Burns’ novel drag for me. One of my personal favourites from this list at the moment would be “Circe” and I’m sure many readers will love it but if she won it’d be quite surprising since she’s won this prize before. It’d be quite a funny and lovely coincidence if “Ordinary People” won the Women’s Prize this year because at this book prize’s party last year I was speaking to Sarah Waters who mentioned that her favourite recent novel was Evans’ book. Of course, I’ve not read Braithwaite’s novel yet and not completely finished reading Evans’ either so I might still change my mind about my own favourite. I’m glad there’s more to discover and debate about these books. Nevertheless, considering the outcry from some people in reaction to the shortlist I think this year’s selection will go down as one of the most controversial in the prize’s history! What do you think of the list? Are you eager to read any that you haven’t yet?

It’s been a fantastic reading year as I discovered some excellent new debut authors, new books from great authors I’ve read before and several classic novels which I read for the first time. I’ve especially enjoyed following a number of book prizes this year including The Women’s Prize, The Dylan Thomas Prize, The Windham-Campbell Prize, The Booker Prize, The Books Are My Bag Awards and The Young Writer of the Year Award. Of course, what I enjoy most is all the debate and discussion these prizes encourage.

Reading isn’t a race and numbers aren’t important, but in total I read 96 books this year. I enjoyed the experience of reading so many of these but here are ten of my favourites. Click on the book titles to see my full reviews of each book.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This novel based on real life recent events presents a dialogue between women who’ve been egregiously abused and raped by men within their own isolated religious community for years. But without the knowledge or even a common language to connect with the larger world they face the terrifying question: what should they do next? It’s an arresting conversation.

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Truman Capote sought to immortalize his high society female friends in a great work of literature. But, having divulged their most closely-guarded secrets in public, he made himself into a social pariah. This novel imaginatively relates the perspectives of these betrayed women on one of the 20th century’s most infamous writers and how these ladies contributed to shaping the culture of their time. It’s a richly layered delicious feast.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Most individuals born into slavery never have the opportunity to realize their intellectual abilities and artistic talents. But Edugyan’s fantastical adventure novel imagines a rare space where a boy with a passion for science and skills at drawing can travel the world experimenting with different ways of being. This is a compulsively readable wondrous novel.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

One of the most difficult challenges of adulthood is navigating our desires as we change and grow as individuals. Quatro takes a very common story about an individual who enters into an affair and draws out of it a discussion so intimate and transformative it gave me a whole new perspective on my relationships to those closest to me and how I inhabit my own mind, body and soul.  

Problems by Jade Sharma

The wilful, outrageously outspoken and deeply troubled young woman at the centre of this novel should have everything going for her, but finds she can’t get herself together. This story is a frank and darkly hilarious account of her arduous struggle with addiction and deeply-felt struggle to find the will to carry on.  

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Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

This year included the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and the 40th anniversary of Virago, a publisher renowned for honouring and republishing great female authors. This beautiful new edition of Memento Mori is a synthesis of these celebrations and I loved discovering this outrageous and witty black comedy first published in 1959. It includes relentlessly entertaining characters while also conveying a profound meditation on life and death.

Circe by Madeline Miller

What would motivate an outcast nymph who resides on a remote island to turn sailors into pigs? Miller brilliantly answers this question while relating the life story of this spurned enchantress from Greek mythology. It’s a surprisingly emotional journey as Circe learns how to best harness her considerable powers and find contentment amidst immortality. This novel is so imaginative and gripping.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

This new novel from America’s greatest writer is wonderfully surprising in how it presents a haunting dystopian tale while simultaneously relating a very autobiographical tale. It dynamically considers difficult questions about personal responsibility while living under questionable government and addresses some of the most pressing issues we face today. It’s a mesmerising story.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

Greengrass’ first novel might not have won the Booker Prize this year, but it demonstrated the considerable talent of this young writer for creating a story which is deeply thoughtful, emotionally gripping and beautifully told. It inventively reaches into the past for answers to questions we hardly dare to speak aloud and reflects on potential ways of seeing.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I’m amazed how a book so compact can contain such a moving and haunting tale. This novel about a unique archaeological weekend follows the journey of a young woman trapped under the influence of her wilful reactionary father. They embark on a dangerous experiment which raises pressing questions about what being English means. It’s an incredibly timely and original tale.

 

What have been some of your favourite books this year? Let me know your top picks or your thoughts about any of the above books in the comments below.

Since I was a big fan of Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles” I’ve been so eager to read her latest novel that reimagines the life of another Greek mythological figure. It did not disappoint. Circe’s most famous role in the myths (and my only prior knowledge of her) was as a magical goddess/sorceress who hosts Odysseus amidst The Odyssey and transforms some of his sailors into swine. Miller tells Circe’s story from her origins as the nymph daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse, a vain and negligent mother. She has a lonely early life as her appearance and voice are scorned by the immortals surrounding her. Her natural propensity for kindness and compassion is tempered by the darker cruelties and vanity of the gods as well as the shallowness and relentless ambition of humans. After being banished and experiencing so much heartache it’s understandable that Circe becomes hotly bitter, intensely lonely and decides to foster her own innate power to fight for what she wants and what she feels is right. In a sense, Miller does for Circe what Gregory Maguire did to the Wicked Witch of the West. Their stories take a figure who is scorned and branded a witch in popular culture and gives them back their humanity. “Circe” is also a finely crafted story that’s truly romantic and thrilling in its many adventures.

One important thing I’d stress is that if you aren’t already familiar with the many Greek myths Miller touches on throughout the novel, don’t look them up before you finish it. Otherwise, it will spoil the plot. At a few points I became curious about some details of a mythological figure I wasn’t aware of so I looked on Wikipedia to find out more and inadvertently spoiled the story for myself. Of course, plot isn’t the most important aspect of a novel and I know its somewhat silly to claim a tale that’s thousands of years old can be spoiled but take this caution if you want to remain in suspense about how a particular storyline will play out. It did feel at some points that there wasn’t a need for Miller to reference quite so many mythological stories. It was as if she tried to cram them all in or that Circe was bragging about having a connection to famous figures. But this is my only light criticism of this novel and the unique interpretations and relationships formed between all these stories is always compelling.

It’s so interesting how Miller writes about the way the gods and adventurous humans are very cognizant that their actions will lead to stories being told about them. It’s analogous to the way some people today only do certain things in order to post a picture or vlog about it on social media. Although the deities are immortal and can recall these stories, the humans need bards to capture their tales and relate them in a way that many future generations on will still be impressed by their accomplishments and dramatic clashes. Miller highlights how these bards and poets often have a misogynistic point of view: “Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” It’s so refreshing to see a range of women from these myths given a fuller complexity in both their heroism and villainy. Figures like her relentlessly cruel sister Pasiphae or the hot-tempered Madea are vividly realised. One thing I found particularly striking is the relationship that develops between Circe and Penelope as their encounter would typically be portrayed as one of rivalry, but instead what we get is a hard-won and sympathetic bond between them.

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

Something that makes Circe stand out as remarkable for her time is that she’s incredibly passionate and desires to have love in her life, but not if she’s just going to be seen as a commodity. She ominously notes “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Circe refuses to be used and she's prepared to fight. When men sexually attack her she uses her magic to defend herself. As a consequence she’s labelled as difficult and a witch. But Miller also shows a really heartrending psychological complexity to Circe’s reaction to being raped. For sailors she meets after she states “I might take him to my bed. It was not desire, not even its barest scrapings. It was a sort of rage, a knife I used upon myself. I did it to prove my skin was still my own. And did I like the answer I found?”

However, as Miller demonstrated in her previous novel, she can also beautifully capture the heights of romance. The text is infused with such a striking intensity of feeling when Circe finds love and the vulnerability this raises for a lonely individual: “in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth.” She is so good at capturing all the great adventure and drama of these classic tales but infusing them with emotions which are immediate and real. Unsurprisingly, when references are made to Achilles it feels like the author treats him with particular affection. But Circe is such a compelling figure in her own right that I wanted to spend even more time reading about the centuries she spends living in the paradise and prison that is her island of Aiaia.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMadeline Miller
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