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George Orwell’s books were one of my first great loves. Like many students I was first introduced to his writing through “1984” and “Animal Farm” but soon after I also came to discover his other fiction including “Burmese Days”, “A Clergyman’s Daughter” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” as well as his nonfiction journalism in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier” – not to mention his many incisive essays. The Orwell Foundation awards a number of prizes for work which comes closest to Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art” and it’s exciting that this year they’ve launched the inaugural Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. This award specifically aims to reward outstanding novels and collections of short stories that illuminate major social and political themes, present or past, through the art of narrative.

The shortlist has just been announced today and includes a number of familiar novels as well as some books I’m so glad to see celebrated. It’s notable how the novels listed range from books which consider the past, present and future. From Tshuma’s account of a massacre in Zimbabwe to Evans’ survey of modern life in contemporary London to Zumas’ frighteningly relevant projection of an America where abortion has been strictly outlawed these books consider how individuals are trapped in the politics of their time. Still others straddle a long space of history such as Brown’s account of working class life within a Middlesbrough housing estate to evoke a sense of place as much as character.

It’s amazing to see how Anna Burns’ “Milkman” was first published to relative obscurity but has since gone on to win the Man Booker Prize and be shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio Prize and Women’s Prize. It’s particularly apt Burns’ novel has been nominated for this award since its central message is about a young woman being helplessly trapped by the crushing political strife within her community. Also nominated for the Man Booker Prize last year was graphic novel “Sabrina” which hauntingly depicts an America emotionally hollowed out by the reverberating effects of gun violence. Taking a different track, Evans’ “Ordinary People” features larger political events in the background as two different black couples wrestle with the pressures of modern day life. I was drawn to reading “Red Clocks” because of its allusions to Virginia Woolf’s writing, but found myself gripped by its story and its prescient depiction of an America which regimentally controls the bodies of women.

The remaining two novels “House of Stone” and “Ironopolis” are both books I’ve been aware of for a while and really want to read. So I’m glad this prize has prompted me to make these novels a priority and bump them up my TBR pile. Have you read any of the books on this list? Any favourites? Are there other recent novels that you also feel meaningfully engage with politics? The winner of this award will be announced on June 25th.

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In a way I felt a special connection with this novel centred around a location so familiar to me. Diana Evans’ “Ordinary People” is set roughly a decade ago – spanning between the year of Obama’s election to the year of Michael Jackson’s death - in an area of south London very close to where I live. So I could instantly visualize the landmarks, parks and even the bus routes she references. Her characters eat in some restaurants I’ve eaten in and even if a restaurant wasn’t named I still knew which one she meant based on her description of the tables. That’s how close to home it was for me! 

The novel is truly saturated with details about London life because it recounts with great specificity tube journeys, walks and daily life in the capital amidst the stories of two couples whose relationships are in a state of flux. Both couples have children. Each of them finds the ordinariness of daily existence is gradually draining away their sense of individuality and their ability to dream of any other way of life. In this context it makes sense that Evans loads her novel with such a density of detail because it allows the reader to fully visualize and feel the texture of their lives weighing upon them. A working father named Damian has a panic attack amidst his stultifying routine of getting a sandwich on his lunch break. A freelance journalist and mother named Melissa feels like she’s suffocating staying in her house day after day. And all Evans’ vividly specific descriptions enhance the sense of their reality but it also runs the risk of boring readers by drowning them in the mundane.

Part of me loved how London life was being evoked and memorialised in this way. But I also felt impatient at times because there’s very little plot in this novel other than tracing the small moments of daily life where characters grow increasingly detached from their roles as parents and spouses. Even though I felt a small thrill at recognizing so many locations and aspects of London life, there was no urgency in the narrative. Evans’ writing is so elegant in its wry commentary on her very convincing characters’ situations. She can frame the oppressive nature of a deteriorating relationship in a short simple line: “They lived in two different houses in one small house.” Or she can mordantly describe the sinking feeling an adult can feel listening to her mother chat endlessly about banal things: “The more they talked, the more the world receded, they were sinking, the dungeon was going down deeper, and deeper.” All these succinct observations made the novel a pleasure to read, but every time I put the book down I didn’t feel a pressing need to return to it.

Another difficulty I had with the novel was how it makes it seem like long term relationships are completely incompatible with having children. There’s no question that the difficulty and stress of raising children can put a strain on a couple’s enduring affection for each other. There’s an achingly sad scene in the book where a couple try to recapture a sense of romance by going on a date which becomes horrifically awkward. But I feel there must also be many moments of pleasure to be had in being both a spouse and parent. I don’t have an issue with how Evans’ specific characters might find this duality untenable, but there are no examples of an alternative point of view. This could have been shown in the lives of peripheral characters to give a hint of a different opinion. Evans even blatantly states at one point that “relationships and children simply don’t belong in the same place.” I feel like this perspective is too narrow as I’m sure many people have found fulfilment and an enhanced sense of identity in maintaining both aspects of their life simultaneously.

There’s a lot to admire in this novel and I appreciated what Evans was doing. No doubt many people will be able to relate to the melancholy way its characters muse upon how daily life can become oppressive: “Sometimes, in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low mental skies, never when one is happy.” It’s interesting how her characters project their emotions onto their social and physical environment making life feel absurd and trivial. I just wish she had also captured some more of the beauty and joy that can be had in what’s steady and familiar. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDiana Evans
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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?