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.

 

Someone Should Write a History of Snow While we Still Know What it Looks Like

I have made a start on my reading of the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

So first out of the blocks is a book published by Granta Publications Jenny Offill’s Weather.

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This is not a lengthy book, coming in at around 200 pages. Offill plays with technique, but not in a mad way that makes you never want to go to Newburyport or see another duck as long as you live.   Nevertheless there is a certain experimentalism in the presentation of the prose in separated paragraphs throughout.

I love this – that you can breathe in between. Sometimes there is a separate thought or action in the new paragraph  and sometimes there is not. But there is nothing disjointed or irritating about the work which I felt flowed very well.   If this is stream of consciousness  then it is the sort that I can happily live with!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It immediately put me in mind of the work of poet and sometime genius Ocean Vuong who has popped up with an endorsement on the cover. ‘This is so good,’ states Vuong, ‘we are not ready nor worthy.’

I’m not sure if I feel unworthy or unready for Offill’s work but I sort of see where the comment is coming from. This book is indeed very good and I feel I want to read it again.

So the blurb on the fly leaf posits this work as being about a lady called Lizzie Benson working as a librarian – without a traditional degree (shock, horror). She has supported for years her Mother and recovering addict brother. Lizzie takes on a project to answer mail for a podcast host/philosopher and lecturer called Sylvia who gets too much mail and who throughout the book seems to withdraw further and further into silence.

And although the book does do these things, the blurb fails to mention entirely that Lizzie is primary carer for her son Eli and that she is happily married to Ben, that she acquires a sister in law and a niece along the way. So in common with most women she spends her days juggling multiple responsibilities alongside her paid work. Her brother Henry requires a huge amount of support – particularly when he is rather unsuitably left in charge of a newborn baby – time and effort which Lizzie, in saintly fashion, never begrudges.

But the narrative of events takes second place against a background of 21st century hysteria and incipient climate crisis:

“Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life altering temperatures by 2047.”

Someone should write a history of snow while we still know what it looks like.

Weather must have been written pre-Corvid but it is an ideal and timely read for this crisis. Offill’s writing defies both categorisation and bland description. I recommend reading it to find out what it does. It certainly deserves its place on the short-list. Will it win?  It is so very different in scope and tone from some of the others on the list  – at least the ones that I have so far read – and yet the role of a novel is to describe to people the times they are living through so that they recognise themselves in the story, or the times their ancestors lived through, or the times we might live through in the future.  And all the shortlisted books do this.

I feel Weather crumbles a bit at the end but that is no doubt deliberate because society will crumble a bit at the end

I do hope to have a punt at the winner before an announcement is made, but it is too early to say if I will choose Weather.

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.

 

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.