I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020. What a talented lot of writers are out there. It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the ethos of the prize so looked it up.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction came about after a group of people – journalists, novelists, agents, publishers, came together in 1992 in a flat in London. The Booker Prize of 1991 had included no women at all, and the group got together to discuss whether this mattered and what should be done about it.
The novelist Kate Mosse, one of the founder members of the prize, writes on the website:
“After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”
Originally sponsored by Orange, the prize is currently sponsored by Deloitte, Nat West and Bailey’s.
I have a natural aversion to commercial sponsorship of literary prizes. But I am overcoming that on the grounds that we have to live in the real world and to do this costs money, plus I understand authors badly need the publicity and book sales which a win brings in its wake. I am also struggling to overcome my even more natural aversion to having Orange or Deloitte tell me what to read. Yet I have come to the conclusion I must at least to some extent get off my high horse about commercial sponsorship of literary prizes and the arts in general – with the exception of fossil fuel companies or bad pharma naturally.
Prizes can be a double edged sword. Yes its great to win them, the publicity, the fuss, the champagne, what’s not to die for? But maybe this draws attention away from equally worthy writing. But then we have to live in the real world, which costs money, etc. So I go round in circles.
Also I worry what are the criteria against which these things are judged? It is gobsmacking that even in the final decade of the 20th century books by women were not thought worthy of even longlisting for a major prize. Yes this is true according to Wiki. Unbelievable but true! We’re not talking 19th century here, we talking 1990s.
Since the inception of The Booker Prize (in 1969) 31 men have won, 16 women. But when in 2019 Margaret Atwood won for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (the latter being incidentally the first black woman ever to win) there was reason to hope that things were changing. I would like to think that this change is in part due to the influence and the success of the Women’s Prize.
Still I digress, back to the shortlist. Téa Obreht’s book The Tiger’s Wife is set against the background of war in The Balkans fought in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia – therefore in the last decade of the 20th century.
If this book was a cake recipe it would contain a splash of realism, a large handful of magic realism and (like Jenny Offill’s book Weather) a dollop of insight into the losses we incur faced with our failing relationship with the natural world that sustains us. As a story, it is quite hard to sum up. It is a storyteller’s book which juggles a seemingly realist narrative against a world of spirit and superstition. In short it is rather wonderful.
“The tree stands near the fence where the braided cornfields begin, and Marko Parovic tells me the people of Galina avoid it all costs; its branches he says cast a net in which souls are caught as they rise to heaven and the ravens that roost there pick the souls out of the bark like worms.”
The tiger’s wife is not real – or she is real in the minds of some of the locals – which leads to tragedy and then legend. There is a deathless man and two Doctors, one the granddaughter of the other who form the backbone of the narrative. There is of course, a tiger, and some of the writing about him form the most lyrical passages in the book.
“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December. Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees; but on that day, the herdsman Vladiša lost a calf in the blizzard and went up the mountain to retrieve it. In a thicket of saplings, he came across the tiger yellow eyed and bright as a blood moon, with the calf already dead, hanging in its jaws.”
Someone from The Guardian describes the story as a ‘matryoshka-style narrative’ referring to the Russian dolls that nest one inside the other, which seems to me an ideal description. The Tiger’s Wife is a story on many levels, some of them real, some mythological.
The question is whether it works overall. I found it very readable and readily entertaining, thought provoking and humane. Will it win? Who knows. Obreht is obviously massively talented, but there is strong competition. I’d love to know what others think about literary prizes.
Next up is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.