womensprizeshortlist1.jpg

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?

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

Group3.jpg

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?

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment
WutheringHeights1.jpg

Reading two major classic novels written by women for the first time felt like the perfect way to bookend my reading of the entire Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist. I started with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and now I’ve ended with “Wuthering Heights”. These novels are also both included in the ‘Rediscover the Classic’ campaign I’ve curated and overseen for Jellybooks. Although both these novels and their famous characters are so ingrained in our cultural lexicon, I’ve been taken aback by the way their powerful narratives still gripped and surprised me. This is also the third novel I’ve read by the Brontë sisters after reading “Jane Eyre” for the first time several years ago and “Agnes Grey” last year. It’s interesting to think about how some parallels can be drawn between them but also how each author employs such different writing styles and has their own unique outlook. “Wuthering Heights” felt like it had the most complicated narrative form of all these books and some of the darkest content, but its made a big impact on me.

It's a good time to get swept up in Brontë fever with 'Brontë 200' happening. This is a five year programme celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of the four Brontë children (2018 marks Emily's 200th birthday). Recently it was announced stones engraved with new writing by Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Kate Bush that commemorates the sisters will be placed in the walk between the sisters’ birthplace and the family parsonage. Not only does The Women's Prize organize events celebrating new authors, but they create opportunities to celebrate women's writing in general. So this week I also went to a wonderful event they held with a number of authors who paid tribute to the legacy of “Wuthering Heights” and they discussed the personal impact its had on them. It was so fascinating hearing the different perspectives on how much they were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” as teenagers and how their reading of the novel has changed over time. It was also noted how the themes, violence portrayed and style of the novel still feel so bold today.

Since I'm discussing “Wuthering Heights” in the context of The Women's Prize, I'd like to briefly draw some parallels I can see between Brontë's novel and books that were on the longlist. I have no idea whether these current authors were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” or not, but it's still interesting to look for connections. The way Brontë explores the line between romance and obsession/abuse and how it portrays the real bloody violence that results in a destructive relationship made me recall Kandasamy's extraordinary portrayal of an abusive marriage in “When I Hit You”. The rift between classes with the Lintons and the Earnshaws/Heathcliff and the question of who will control this rural land and houses felt reminiscent of the class struggle evident in Mozley's “Elmet”. The intense sense of claustrophobia and a family that hates each other trapped inside the farmhouse that is Wuthering Heights made me recall the toxic atmosphere in the house in Schmidt's “See What I Have Done”. The continuing impact of history that manifests in the presence of ghosts was also portrayed in Ward's “Sing, Unburied, Sing”. I don't know how much an in-depth comparison between these novels would yield, but it's nevertheless worth noting how Emily Brontë wrote about themes which are still relevant and being written about today.

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

It feels odd in a way coming to “Wuthering Heights” as a 39 year old man as this does seem like a novel that I ought to have first read as a teenager. In the discussion the other night, Juno Dawson noted how “Jane Eyre” seems like the perfect young adult novel but she didn't appreciate “Wuthering Heights” as much until reading it now. I might have had a similar reaction, but I like how the reality of reading Emily's novel defies the common conception that it is a great love story. The reality of Heathcliff and Catherine's lifelong romance is so much more twisted and bitter than a Romeo and Juliet story. Built within it is a rift between the born privilege and class aspirations of Catherine and the resented orphan Heathcliff. Rather than a love story, “Wuthering Heights” is more an extremely elaborate revenge tale where Heathcliff plays the long game to enact the wrath he feels at being so mistreated as a child and then slighted by the woman he loves. I sympathized with Heathcliff's anger over his outsider status, but of course I was also horrified by the monstrous way he acts and schemes to dominate the houses and all who inhabit them.

I must confess that I found the convoluted narrative structure a struggle for most of the first half. There is so much story within story where in some instances the present tenant Lockwood is being told a tale by the servant Nelly who is recounting a letter written by Isabella who is recalling an encounter she had. It made some parts difficult to follow, but this is a reason why it feels like rereading would yield a lot more and how it's worth really knowing the characters and the dynamic between them going into this novel. I know that this style of narration raises lots of interesting questions about how trustworthy the narrators are, but it does make it challenging to follow. In a way, I much preferred the second half of the novel which has to do with the second generation of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Here I could feel the resonance of all that came before and how children are drawn into and absorb the quarrels of past generations. It's also fascinating how the roles of characters are switched around in the new generation and how you can feel the internal battles these younger individuals have to reconcile the past. There are also passages which are deeply meditative with characters contemplating their positions and struggling to see how to carry on. The second half of the novel gives “Wuthering Heights” an epic feel and made it much more emotionally resonant for me than if the story had stopped at the end of the first half.

It struck me that as an orphan story “Wuthering Heights” is much bolder and more daring than a book like Dickens' “Oliver Twist”. Oliver is so wholly good and moral whereas Heathcliff becomes an embittered and destructive monster. It feels like Emily Brontë presents a much more complicated and nuanced portrait of good vs evil and she shows how, though there is a lot of reprehensible action and other people's resentment is taken out on innocent people, there are understandable reasons for such violence. I could empathize with the struggle of many characters in “Wuthering Heights” and particularly admired the way she portrayed Isabella. She could be dismissed as a superficial or comic individual, but I felt for her conflict, the way she gambled and lost, and the way she resolutely decided to remove herself from a toxic situation where everyone else remained. I'm excited now to look at some film adaptations of the book (although I know most only portray the first half of the novel) and one day I look forward to reading Emily's story again.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Bronte

It's been quite a journey dedicating myself to reading all sixteen novels on The Women's Prize 2018 longlist (although luckily I'd already happened to read a number of them.) But I was glad that this prize pushed me to read some books I've been meaning to get to and try a couple I don't think I would have read otherwise. Even the books on the list which I don't think come together fully like “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”, "The Idiot" or “Miss Burma” gave me a lot of interesting things to think about in subject matter and narrative style. Since I read “Sight” before its publication and loved it so much it's been particularly interesting hearing people's more critical reactions it. And I love that this prize introduced me to new novels like "The Trick to Time", "Home Fire" and "The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock" which I'm not sure I would have got to reading otherwise. 

Yesterday I met with The Women's Prize shadow panel and spent a fab few hours with Naomi, Eleanor and Antonia at a pub discussing every novel in depth. I was really surprised at how wildly different our opinions were on some books. There were some passionate pleas for novels and big detractors for others, but when it came to whittling down a final list it wasn't that difficult to conclude which ones we collectively agree are the best. However, my personal list would be slightly different. So I'll put photos of both below.

Have you been reading books on the longlist? Which are your favourites? Which don't you think deserve to be there? And which do you hope will be on the shortlist?

I'll be so excited to see what the Women's Prize judges have chosen for the actual shortlist tomorrow evening. 

The shadow panel's shortlist

The shadow panel's shortlist

My personal choices for the shortlist

My personal choices for the shortlist

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment
MissBurma.jpg

It feels surprising that “Miss Burma” is perhaps the least known novel on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist when its plot and the origins of its story are so sensational. Perhaps its initial publication made a bigger splash in the US, but I’ve seen many people in the UK remark that they had not heard of this book before its prize nomination. The blurbs on its cover from accomplished authors such as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Garth Greenwell certainly speak highly of the regard this novel is held in. It’s Charmaine Craig’s second novel, but prior to becoming a writer she was an actress who notably played the live-action model upon whom the animated character of Disney’s Pocahontas was based off from. The story of  “Miss Burma” and the central character of Louisa were based on Craig’s mother who had a truly epic life as a beauty pageant winner, famous Burmese actress and political revolutionary. Both Louisa and her family were intimately involved in the complicated social and political changes that occurred in the recent history of Burma (presently known as Myanmar.) Charmaine Craig reimagines her family’s harrowing story which parallels this turbulent 20th century period that involved a break from colonialism, warring ethnic groups, invasion/interference from numerous foreign powers and the military leadership of the country after a coup d’etat in 1962.

One of the great missions of this novel is to evoke the presence and struggle of the indigenous peoples of Burma who were systematically stripped of their cultural heritage and were subject to acts of genocide. Many ethnic groups have struggled to establish a presence and voice within the country’s government in the past century. At one point a character feels how “His opinion didn’t matter, because Burma’s peoples didn’t matter. Burma mattered only so far as it posed a problem for the countries that did matter. America, China, Russia.”  “Miss Burma” focuses in particular on the plight of the Karen people who were subjected to frequent attacks and oppression. Some Karens waged a war against the central Burmese government demanding either representation or the establishment of an independent Karen state. The bulk of the story follows the tumultuous marriage of Benny and Khin, Louisa’s parents. Although their coupling begins in the most innocent and romantic way, their lives include tremendous strife as well as some periods of success as the country and its people are ravaged by war.

The story includes very powerful sensory descriptions of Benny and Khin’s plight. These range from the fetid conditions and rat-infested cells that Benny is imprisoned within to the smell of Khin’s own sweat as she arduously hauls good to sell on the open market so that she can afford to feed her children. I was moved by the depiction of a relationship that is dragged through so much conflict and how this influences the characters’ actions as well as the transformation in how this couple view each other. This combined with the meaningful internal conflict many characters feel about what direction the country should take amidst riotous political strife made the novel really come alive for me. Most notable are evocative scenes where Benny paces in his study while scribbling his thoughts and audibly debates with himself while his bewildered family witnesses his mental fragmentation. Benny and Khin strategically plan on putting their daughter Louisa forward to win beauty competitions to first become Miss Karen and then win the country-wide title of Miss Burma. Because of her mixed race heritage Louisa subsequently becomes an “image of unity” in the press as well as a celebrity figure subject to insidious tabloid speculation. This platform that Louisa achieves allows for strategic manoeuvring between political figures and gradually Louisa takes a revolutionary stance.

MissBurma2.jpg

It is jarring in some sections how the author curiously breezes through dramatic changes in periods of her characters’ lives. For instance, during a period of stability Benny achieves a great amount of financial success running a number of businesses. This all happens quite quickly in a few paragraphs after a long section of his living with Khin in near destitution. Equally, Louisa’s success in pageants which springboard her into celebrity status and film stardom happens so quickly its as if they required hardly any effort from her or her family at all. Perhaps for a historical novel that uses material which is so personal to its author, Craig felt that certain sections of the characters’ lives were predetermined so she didn’t need to show the challenges these individuals faced in achieving their success or the tension of what might have happened if they’d failed. Instead she is much more concerned with the intricacies of the social meetings of political figures and the very tense uncertainty of different characters’ national loyalties.

I didn’t always understand the complex politics and conflicts involved in this novel. So in some sections I did feel a bit bewildered and in some ways it was perhaps too ambitious for the author to try to contain so much about the warring factions and complex motives of different parties. I didn’t find this to be a huge problem because I’m glad it’s encouraged me to read more about Burma’s fascinating history. But it did draw me out of the story at times. However, the novel really resonated when I felt the weight of expectation put on Louisa’s shoulders as she’s moulded into a symbol who becomes cognizant of the privilege of her role to take a stance and enact change herself. It’s intriguing how Charmaine Craig remarked in an interview that she originally wrote this novel focusing on her own relationship with her mother. This final novel feels quite far removed from that more personal story as it primarily delves into the lives of Craig’s grandparents. Though it would have made it a huge epic, I would have liked to see the story carried through to the author’s own times and her mother’s later life while sacrificing some of the political conspiracy elements. I feel like this would have made the novel resonate more as a personal story rather than an inside history of Burma.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCharmaine Craig

“The language of violence, spoken by the powerful of all nations, erased distinctions beneath the surface.”

HomeFire.jpg

Kamila Shamsie's extraordinary and engrossing novel “Home Fire” is in many ways about getting beneath the surface of headlines to show the complexity of people, situations and otherness. This is the story of a family that has been splintered apart. Isma Pasha took responsibility for raising her younger twin siblings after their mother's early death and the disappearance of their father. The novel begins with Isma finally taking steps to live her own life and continue her education in America now that her brother Parvaiz and sister Aneeka are older. But Parvaiz's disconnection with his own family's past leads him into a dangerous situation. Paired with this family's story is that of Karamat Lone, a man who has been appointed the British Home Secretary and his son Eamonn. Karamat has gained political clout by spouting rhetoric that will gain him favour with white conservatives. But Eamonn's involvement with the Pasha family leads Karamat into a situation where he must choose between family and his political ambition. Shamsie subtly reworks the story and ideas of the Greek tragedy Antigone into a contemporary landscape where the question of national identity has become so divisive. It's a dramatic and engaging tale that totally gripped me.

Although I've read this novel several months after it was first published its subject matter is still striking relevant. On the morning that I finished reading this book I opened BBC News to see a story about two British-born men who joined the Islamic State and had their British citizenship revoked. One thread of Shamsie's story parallels such an instance, but gets behind the sensationalist and fearmongering media headlines where people have been demonized as terrorists or sluts to deal with the complexity of individual experience. It also opens with the very real experience that many people of Middle Eastern descent face when travelling between Britain and America where they are subjected to extensive searches at the airport. This made me recall Riz Ahmed's powerful essay in the anthology “The Good Immigrant” about the self consciousness and sense of guilt this induces. “Home Fire” shows up how British politicians often speak about cross-cultural respect and inclusivity, but many legal practices and procedures encourage division and induce feelings of otherness.

HomeFire2.jpg

However, an interesting issue came up for me since I happened to read this novel directly after reading Ahmed Saadawi's “Frankenstein in Baghdad” which is on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. I like to follow prize lists so I'm trying to read some titles from this as well as all the books on the longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction. But it struck me how major plot lines for both these novels are about terrorism and of their respective prize lists they are the only titles by authors of Middle Eastern descent. This raises a question for me about representation since it seems striking that the only novels by Middle Eastern writers that are being lauded in these British prizes are about headline issues. The same could be said about the 2017 Booker Prize longlist which Shamsie was also nominated for alongside Mohsin Hamid whose novel “Exit West” is about immigration.

I'm not criticising these authors for their choice of topics or story lines. All three of these novels are excellent in their own right, include dynamic individual characters and explore things other than these headline issues. And I'm not trying to lambast these prizes or the publishing industry. Perhaps it's simply a coincidence that these prize-nominated books are dealing with topics that many Westerns instantly associate with Middle Eastern countries and people of Middle Eastern descent. And in many ways these novels powerfully show the complexity behind these topics. It just makes me question why we're not also celebrating and reading more Middle Eastern authors who write about different aspects of Muslim and Middle Eastern life. One of the things I most admired about Elif Shafak's recent novel “Three Daughters of Eve” was its portrayal of very different kinds of young Muslim women in Britain. As a reader, I'd like more of this and a greater plurality of literature. I hope to read more books that show multifaceted aspects of BAME communities and individuals. I spoke about this in my recent Reading Wrap Up video and asked for more book recommendations so I'm pleased to see several comments from people suggesting more Middle Eastern literature. This is just something I thought worth pointing out since I read “Home Fire” in this particular context. Completely aside from this or maybe because it vigorously deals with such topical issues, I think Kamila Shamsie's novel is incredibly distinct, beautifully written and an extraordinarily engaging story.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKamila Shamsie
3 CommentsPost a comment

I’ve said it before, but it really does feel like the first holiday of a year when the longlist for The Women’s Prize for Fiction gets announced. It’s one of my favourite book prizes and I love reading/discussing/debating all the titles this award honours. It’s particularly exciting that the prize this year is known under it’s new title The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Baileys Prize.) Some weeks ago I made a video with my friend Anna about what books we’d like to see on the longlist for the prize. Between us we guessed 9 of the 16. You can watch me discuss my reaction to this year’s longlist here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DCtqkk_78&t=27s

Group.jpg

After I finish reading Joanna Cannon’s novel I’ll have six more on the list to read. I’ll be meeting with Naomi from TheWritesofWomen and other members of our Shadow Group to discuss the longlist and pick our own fan favourite shortlist/winner for the prize. So there’s a lot of fun discussion to come! Let me know in the comments what books from the longlist you’re eager to read or what you’d like to see win. The official shortlist will be announced on April 23rd and the winner will be announced on June 6th.

A lot of people will bemoan the fact Ali Smith’s “Winter” isn’t included on this list and its absence is a great shame. I have no special inside knowledge or insight into the judging process, but I’d just point out that we don’t know if the novel was even submitted for the prize. Novels that are eligible aren’t always put forward for a prize and there can be any number of reasons for this. That’s just part of the mysterious alchemy of book prizes!

For the books that I’ve already read and reviewed you can click on the titles below to see my full thoughts.

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

A friend of mine is currently judging a book prize and May We Be Forgiven is one of the books up for consideration. He asked me for my opinion of it so it gave me a good excuse to get to this book I've been meaning to read all year. When I saw AM Homes read from it on the shortlisted authors' panel at the Woman's Prize for Fiction reading at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year I enjoyed the funny engaging tone of the book. At the heart of it this book is about a man named Harry who has been emotionally sidelined all his life and feels a little detached from both his past and his current actions because of this neglect. He's been overshadowed by his successful brother George who always belittles him. However, at the beginning of the novel George has a sort of breakdown leaving Harry to pick up the pieces. Through a string of misadventures Harry gradually develops a new idea of what a family is – and it's not necessarily those you are bound to by blood, but people who really appreciate you for being you.

Homes does an impressive job analyzing the disillusionment of the 'American Dream' in this book and I really like how it trashes the idea of the traditional nuclear family. I've always felt the image of the perfectly balanced family - a sort of leftover from the 50s - has had a haunting effect on what the majority of society socially aspire to in creating a balanced happy life - like this is a model where any deviation should be stamped out. So the way in which this image is imploded from the very beginning leaving the brother to gradually construct a non-traditional family based on personal values rather than society's image is really effective and builds to a really tender emotional resonance. However, I felt the style at times to be somewhat distancing when it would lapse into scenes which felt farcical like in one scene where the authorities set up a sting operation to seize George who is with an Israeli with an ipad and the narrator brings cookies as bait. Sometimes it felt as if Homes is mocking the characters with corny race jokes like when Harry remarks what a good Jew a Chinese woman is when she asks him for a big donation. For some reason moments like this felt more jarring to me than some other scenes I found actually funny like the family's longstanding feud about the correct way to make matzoh balls and scenes of miscommunication like when Harry returns home from the hospital at one point after having a stroke. He tells a lawyer over the phone he had a small event and the lawyer replies he hopes it was pleasant. This kind of mis-fired understanding resonates because it shows the day to day breaks in communication we frequently experience in small ways because we function inside our own heads so much and let most of our interactions become routine. Like when the narrator comments, "Hard not to be surpised, when the bulk of conversation goes like this: 'Paper or plastic?' The loss of the human touch scares me." This seems to be speaking to what Homes is really trying to get at throughout the book – a sort of breakdown in genuine connections replaced with very modern sorts of substitutions that blanket emotion: online hook up sex with random strangers… food as something to be gorged upon rather than nourish.

In this novel people seem to inhibit their feelings continuously until they burst out sporadically like one scene where a boy named Ricardo’s aunt spews out her dissatisfaction with her life and when Harry's nephew Nate has an outburst after meeting an organ donor recipient. At the beginning the priorities of the narrator are all perverted like it’s more important knowing the calorie count of brownies than discussing what’s happening with his troubled brother. Homes seems to be using the narrator as a conduit who represents this dissociation – someone living perpetually in the present who literally can’t recall the past but by charging forth he makes connections with people he values and who value him in a way that his brother, mother and father never did (their frequent put-downs and insults towards him having ground him down to make him feel worthless).

I do like how she uses simple declarative sentences to effectively underpin the sense that the central character doesn’t understand his own motivations. It’s effective, but I think I prefer some short stories by Homes that I’ve read more than this novel. She can create a very evocative powerful scene quickly yet the effect in this novel is shuffling through a whole slew of these scenes so fast I found it sometime disorientating and distancing. In her book of short fiction Things You Should Know, Homes wrote a very good story about Nancy Reagan living a spooky isolated existence in her old age where she chats on a former first ladies' online forum that’s very funny. She seems to find something really powerful and resonant invoking American figureheads as guiding beacons for people’s values. I also found it somewhat distracting at times how heavily Homes marks out how she's in dialogue with other writers by making references to authors - Don DeLillo popping up in some scenes and naming a law firm in the novel after a combination of Saul Bellow titles and the spectre of John Cheever popping up in a parking lot. I guess it’s kind of fun but feels a little pretentious and heavy-handed.

May We Be Forgiven is a really interesting and entertaining read. Comparing it against other books on this year's Woman's Prize shortlist, as a novel I think Kingsolver's Flight Behavior stands up as something which keeps up a steadily paced narrative which develops and mounts to a whole piece rather than disjointed scenes. But reading this novel has made me want to go back and read more of Homes short fiction. 

o-A-M-HOMES-WOMENS-PRIZE-FOR-FICTION-WINNER-570.jpg
Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAM Homes