The Double Edged Sword of the Literary Prize – and The Legend of The Tiger’s Wife

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.

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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.

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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.

 

This work flows like a river out of Eden

A Review of Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton) 2019

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I didn’t think I was going to review this joyous book.  It won the Booker Prize which restricts the conversation a bit.  What is there left to say?    Yet   I was fortunate to be in the audience to attend a talk given by the author at the Hay Festival and this changed my mind. So here are my thoughts.

Evaristo’s prose sits on the page in all its poetic wholeness with scarcely a capital letter or full stop to be seen.  Yet unlike Woolf who can sometimes leave you scrabbling for a handhold or for a breath, this work flows perfectly like a river out of Eden.  It’s not officially stream of consciousness.    I have no idea how she did it,  but Evaristo’s background is in poetry and her knowledge of scansion must have helped.

The book which in unBooker-like fashion is not a challenging read,  follows the lives of 12 women in modern Britain.

The first question that Peter Florence, the Director and co-founder of Hay Festival who also happened to be Chair of the Booker panel this year asked was:  We understand ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ but what about ‘other’  The reply from Evaristo was that she wanted to show how these women come to be perceived as being ‘other’.   What it is about societies that ‘others’ people.

What does it mean to be ‘other’.  Race, identity and belonging – the topic that gave birth to a thousand and one theses and to which we can add gender and sexual orientation, are all things which can confuse, emotionally and intellectually.  Which of us really knows ourselves?    But the author does not seem in the least confused about any of it, getting inside the heads of each of her characters, taking them from childhood to the epiphanic moment when they find a way to be.

It is not just a matter of being black in a society in which to be black meant you could not book a bed for the night because your putative landlady thought your colour might rub off on her sheets (welcome to Great Britain pre-Race Discrimination laws).  It is not just a book about having a particular skin colour – to be a woman even in 2019 is to be ‘other’ from the standpoint of many aspects of our societies in which our institutions are still crawling out of Victorian patriarchal attitudes and doing so relatively slowly, changing only when forced to do so by law or scandal or both.

A lot of books (thankfully) are now written by women – some treat of the reality of lived female experience in a modern world.   Many do not.  Some writers of both sexes add female characters – even strong female characters – as a box ticking exercise or as characters to be exploited in some way by men.

Girl Woman Other is a breath of fresh air in the contemporary literary scene and I am so happy that Evaristo has been recognised.

Elif Shafak. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking) 2019

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Elif Shafak I regard as one of today’s greatest writers.  I loved The Forty Rules of Love and Three Daughters of Eve although I struggled a bit with the Architect’s Apprentice but that’s OK.  It was an earlier work and it’s not always possible to love everything.

Leila is the author’s masterwork so far. 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World was  on the shortlist for the Man Booker when Bernadine Evaristo won with Margaret Atwood.  It must have been an unenviable task to judge this year’s prize.

Like Evaristo, Shafak takes a culture – her culture –and shows us how it excludes, abases and abuses women in a way that is culturally so normal that it is invisible.  Such invisibility does not extend to the minds of  writers and artists, of course, many of whom are currently subject to persecution in Turkey.   In a moving tribute to her grandmother, whose funeral she did not feel able to attend for political reasons, the author says that she felt the fictional character of Leila and her grandmother had met and become good friends:

“… sister-outsiders.  After all boundaries of the mind mean nothing for women who continue to sing songs of freedom under the moonlight ….”

Leila, Or Tequila Leila as she is called – is the lead character in 10 minutes 38 seconds.  ‘Is’ I say.  Not ‘was’.    It’s important to Leila to be counted among the present tense, we find that out in the prologue before the story proper even starts.  The reason being that she is dead by the time the story starts.   She still narrates the story.  Raped by her uncle as a child (and blamed – look what you made me do) her life slowly falls apart.  She ends up working in a brothel in Istanbul.  But life is regenerated in a human and beautiful fashion by a strange and curious circle of friends that come into being. Shafak’s storytelling seems to me second to none in so many ways but her characters are particularly wonderful.  Magic realist, perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless.

“Perhaps it was not that different when it came to death.   People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath.  But things were not clear-cut like that.  Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest’  If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

I believe in the permeability of that sandstone.  And the book’s ending is a celebration of freedom.