I’ve been greatly anticipating what might be longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize – Anna and I had such fun speculating in our annual video. It’s great to see a diverse and varied group of novels listed! Not only are there some great books I was hoping to see such as “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker, “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, “Circe” by Madeline Miller, “Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss and “Normal People” by Sally Rooney – but there are also some novels I’ve been wanting to read and others I know nothing about. So the list is the perfect balance of books I’m thrilled to see celebrated and others I’m now eager to explore.

More than anything I feel like many of the novels on this list will generate such interesting discussions. Although both “Ghost Wall” and “Normal People” have been so popular they have their critics as well. I feel like “The Pisces” and “Freshwater” will receive really mixed responses as well. I myself had a mixed reaction to “Milkman” as I’m one of its readers that found it a difficult book – not in being able to understand it, but it sometimes felt like a slog to read despite there being some stunningly insightful passages. After it won the Booker Prize it felt like some readers who loved it were annoyed by it being labelled as a “difficult” or “challenging” novel as if readers who felt this way were being lazy or failed to comprehend the narrative. I don’t think these descriptive terms are equivalent. There are many novels like those written by Marlon James I’d describe as “difficult” and “challenging” as well but I also think they’re brilliant. I simply felt that, while “Milkman” honestly has so many strengths and has powerful things to say, it wasn’t as enjoyable a reading experience for me. Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend everyone read “Milkman” and I’ll be eager to discuss it with you once you do. While I’m sure many people will have divergent opinions on the books longlisted I hope we can maintain a civilized discussion and respect other readers’ personal reactions to what they read even if we disagree.

Of the sixteen books listed, I’ve read seven and a half (I’m currently reading Luiselli’s novel.) After finishing this I’ll probably start by reading “An American Marriage” or “Ordinary People”. Which are you most intrigued to read first? Here’s the list with links to my reviews of the ones I’ve read so far:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Milkman by Anna Burns

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Circe by Madeline Miller

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Normal People by Sally Rooney

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The shortlist will be announced on April 29th and the winner on June 5th. What do you think of the list? Will you try to read them all or are there select ones you want to focus on?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s the start of this year’s book prize season and I love perusing all the lists the judges to create to see what they choose to highlight. One of my favourite prizes of late is the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize – whose shortlist I so avidly followed last year. It was great to see poet Kayo Chingonyi receive the prize last year for his debut collection “Kumukanda”. The Dylan Thomas Prize is awarded to what the judges deem to be the best published literary work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under.

This year’s longlist has just been announced and it’s got that perfect mix of books I’ve read and admired, books I’ve been meaning to read and a few books I’ve not come across before. On the list are eight novels, two short story collections and two books of poetry. Two that I’ve read and that were also listed for this year’s Costa Book Awards are “Normal People” by Sally Rooney and “Soho” by Richard Scott. Rooney’s immense popularity as one of the most exciting new voices in Ireland today is well deserved and Richard Scott’s disarmingly beautiful and emotional poetry still vividly sticks with me. It’s also wonderful to see the excellent Sarah Perry honoured for her most recent novel “Melmoth” and writer Emma Glass for her wickedly creative slim debut novel “Peach”.

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I’m eager to try reading some of the other books listed before the shortlist is announced on April 2nd. This year’s winner will be announced on May 16th. It’s also fun to note that one of the judges of this year’s prize is writer Kit De Waal!

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Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist or are you curious to try some of them now?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Sally Rooney is a writer that stands out as the voice of young Ireland. The natural milieu of her characters are intellectual college educated women and men in their teens and twenties. From her first novel “Conversations with Friends” to her new Booker longlisted “Normal People” she presents their stories about grappling with relationships and finding a place in society with deceptively straightforward prose. While this runs the risk of appearing to have a parochial view of the world, it moreover reads as emotionally honest and engaging in a way that few writers can pull off. This new novel is the story of Marianne and Connell who come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. Connell's mother works as a cleaner at Marianne's family home. The differences in class seem an inconsequential part of their relationship at first, but as they get older it has more of an effect on how they connect to each other. The story charts the staggered journey of their bond from 2011 to 2015. You can read this novel for the insights it gives into modern life and the plight of a section of an emerging generation, but it's moreover a modern romance which meaningfully engages the reader in the characters' growth as individuals and tantalizes with the question: will they or won't they get together? 

Before I recently read this novel I went to literary event and bumped into the excellent writer Ruth Gilligan who remarked how it's not been remarked in many reviews how at its core “Normal People” works as a really gripping romance story. I wonder if literary critics are hesitant to acknowledge this fact out of a fear that Sally Rooney will appear like a less intellectual writer. It's something Rooney herself seems to grapple with as her character Connell discovers Jane Austen's novels and the pleasure of an old fashioned romance story. “Normal People” is really an updated version of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma” for the way it takes seriously the struggle to find a real emotional connection amidst societal influences. It asks questions such as to what degree does social perception factor into our private relationships? How does wealth and power influence our connection to each other? In what way are our current relationships hampered by the emotional baggage of our pasts? But these larger questions linger in the background without intruding upon the pleasures to be found in the plot of Rooney's story. Marianne and Connell's relationship is on a par with that of the great tortured romances in literature like Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler whose evident passion for each other is also stymied by circumstance and tragic misunderstanding. 

Rooney has a particular talent for writing about the quiet emotional core and inner conflicts of her characters without any flourishes or elaborate language. This struck me following the journey of her character Frances in “Conversations with Friends” and it's even more powerfully portrayed in Marianne whose complex toxic family situation is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. At one point she observes of Marianne that “She wants to tell him things. But it’s too late now, and anyway it has never done her good to tell anyone.” Rooney describes in this powerfully understated way how the most significant things are often left unsaid and how we hinder ourselves from forming lasting connections out of a fear of truly revealing ourselves. At the same time she shows how the nature of being dictates we are all locked in a struggle between our inner and outer realities: “In just a few weeks’ time Marianne will live with different people, and life will be different. But she herself will not be different. She'll be the same person, trapped in her own body. There's nowhere she can go that would free her from this. A different place, different people, what does that matter?”

It feels like Rooney is deeply suspicious of the elitism of some literary circles. At university avid reader Connell develops a desire to become a writer himself but he's wary that the apparent insights fiction appears to give might be false. As someone from a working class background he's especially cognizant of how class factors into who consumes literature. When attending a reading he observes: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” At the same time, literature is a method of creating a cultural dialogue that he still wants to participate in. But I wonder if this instance also gives an insight into why Rooney is so steadfast in writing about characters that are young, intelligent and Irish rather than imaginatively inhabiting the lives of people who are radically different from herself. I can't imagine Rooney writing about the plight of a Syrian refugee as Donal Ryan does in his accomplished novel “From a Low and Quiet Sea”. I imagine this would feel to her like an act for the sake of appearances and showily engaging in cultural dialogue. That's not to say Connell's feelings are necessarily her own, but that it's striking in the two novels Rooney has produced that she's stuck to writing about the lives and concerns of a limited set of people. This doesn't demonstrate a lack of imagination, but the conscious intent of a talented writer. 

Since Donal Ryan is also longlisted for the Booker prize, it also seems interesting to compare “Normal People” to another Irish longlisted title “Milkman” by Anna Burns. Rooney and Burns have very different styles of writing and focuses - “Normal People” is set in rural Ireland and Dublin while “Milkman” is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. But there's a striking coincidental parallel between the novels in that they both feature socially outcast female protagonists who read constantly to consciously escape their surroundings and develop relationships with men unwilling to label that relationship as committed. I don't know if this says anything significant about Ireland, modern social culture or the dynamic between men and women, but it's an interesting connection. While we can easily debate about the inherent worth of the Booker prize and the choices that the judges have made in their longlist this year, I enjoy how the prize has prompted me to read these new novels in close proximity to each other. But regardless of book prizes or literary culture in general, “Normal People” is a wonderfully engaging novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Rooney