The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has just been announced!
An American Marriage is a really good book, an easy read and the first third of the book was so amazing – to add to that, the topics An American Marriage deals with are really relevant: racism, the judicial system, loyalty, family and marriage, which I think are the reasons why it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. It’s a good book for creating discussion, for sure. But it’s not, in my opinion, the greatest book written by a woman in 2018, the most innovative and unique, the most creative. Tayari Jones is an amazing writer, there is no doubt about that. But the Women’s Prize for Fiction is about more than just a good book people will like – it’s about giving a voice to a group of writers who used to be (and still are) constantly silenced and dismissed as “serious” authors. I don’t mind if the main character is unlikable and if the book is not one I loved and will die for – but it needs to have something more, a challenge perhaps on the way it’s written, on the way the main character is, on the plot, anything really. The themes are important and definitely need to be talked about and represented more in fiction, but that does not change the fact that An American Marriage is a conventional contemporary, even if a very good one, and does not bring anything new. So it’s disappointing.
I would have been happy with most of the books that never made it to the shortlist winning the prize, but I’m not surprised by this result at all. The entire prize has been, so far, giving off a vibe of trying to please the crowd instead of challenging it. An American Marriage is the safest book of the entire longlist. It would have been a truly satisfying ending to see The Pisces or Ghost Wall win, they both felt like they had that extra oomph that a lot of the other books don’t.
As for the longlist, there were a lot of interesting choices, a couple odd ones, but altogether the list seemed… strange. Rachel does a great job of explaining how the whole selection looked like it had been chosen with a sort of “checklist” in her post Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist Reflections. A lot of those thoughts I share and she explains it very eloquently, so I will not repeat things here – go read her post, it’s amazing!
I would like to add that it’s really disappointing that, for a prize that celebrates books by women, most of these books were about women’s relationships with men. I understand that the topic offers lots of depth and is certainly interesting to read about, and some of the books below make a brilliant job with it. But I wish we could have seen more unique stories that aren’t about relationships – I think My Sister, The Serial Killer was a great choice, for example, because it does relationships but turns it all upside down and is ultimately about putting family first. The Pisces does a similar thing by being about putting yourself and those who truly love you first. But did we need… so many?
So that was also very disappointing, and I hope to see something different for next year. More unique reads, more challenging things, more books that are more than a solid contemporary.
Here are my thoughts on each of the books from the longlist, briefly:
My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite ★★★★☆
I was surprised to see this book on the list, since it didn’t strike me as the usual literary fiction we see making the list, but once I thought about it, it was an interesting choice! This little book is dark and unique, and I’m glad more people have been reading it!
Circe, by Madeline Miller ★★★★★
This was a gorgeous read and I loved it so much. This retelling of Circe felt timeless and I was very enchanted by it. I was so happy when it was nominated, although surprised to see a fantasy book on the list.
Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li ★★★★☆
This was the wild card – a book rated 3.1 and every time more reviews showed up, the rating got lower and lower. I liked this book very much, which is a rather unpopular opinion. It wasn’t a brilliant book, and I’m not sure I was convinced by it making the longlist, but I really liked the story about immigration, relationships and food.
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones ★★★★☆
This story of an innocent man who is sent to prison unjustly, and what it does to his marriage. The first third was so beautiful and I was emotionally devastated so many times. But after this first third, it turns into a rather regular, even though really good, contemporary book, not entirely different from many others.
Ordinary People, by Diana Evans ★★★☆☆
I ended up enjoying Ordinary People – the writing was witty and pretty, although unnecessarily verbose. This falls also in the category of a solid contemporary that I’m not sure I understand why it made the longlist and certainly not the shortlist.
Swan Song, by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott ★★★☆☆
This book had such an amazing promise with a story about the women Truman Capote wrote about in his infamous chapters to Esquire magazine, but I did not love it. The pacing was so slow and I could not care for most of the characters, plus with all the calling Truman names, I was not down for it. I like the idea of this book more than its execution.
Praise Song for the Butterflies, by Bernice L. McFadden ★★★☆☆
I really appreciate the story the author told with this book, but in the end I was disappointed by the lack of character depth and development. So while it was a relevant and interesting story, it did not leave a strong impression on me. I am not sure how I feel about it having made the longlist – it’s great to see this kind of representation and I appreciate what the author tried to do, but in literary terms this book didn’t do much for me.
Milkman, by Anna Burns ★★★★☆
This was such a fantastic read, and incredibly intense. I completely see why this has been gathering so many prizes. It’s both timeless and timely, with themes on community, safety, sexism, violence. It’s not a book to pick up to pass the time, you need to be actually invested in it, but it’s really worth it. Absolutely deserved to be shortlisted.
The Pisces, by Melissa Broder ★★★★☆
An unexpectedly wonderful read! This book deals with depression and addiction to romance in such a humane way that it broke my heart, made me laugh, cringe and swear. A challenging, but so addictive read. Really a gem.
Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Lewyr ★★★☆☆
The more I think about this book, the more I like it. I started it thinking it would be rather unremarkable, as it’s one of the least talked-about books of this list. But this little gem packs a punch of magical realism, history, whimsy and violence. I need to re-read this book and will perhaps change my rating. I was actually sad I didn’t make the shortlist!
Normal People, by Sally Rooney ★★★★☆
This was EXCELLENT. A simple but elegantly written book about the relationship between two people who never seem to be able to let go of each other. I literally got chills from reading this and had to take a break sometimes because it’s just such an emotional impact. Brilliant book.
The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker ★★★☆☆
I didn’t really love this one as I thought I would. It had everything to be a favorite, being a feminist retelling of a Greek myth, but I didn’t care much for the characters or the plot, and the writing seemed a bit off to me. Maybe I expected more adventure out of it. Still, it was an interesting read and I’m glad I picked it up!
Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli ★★★★☆
This is a beautiful, beautiful book. Like some others in this list, it also touches on the topic of relationships and family, but it’s mostly about being a refugee, about history and the importance of documenting. It’s not an easy read but it’s really rewarding!
Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton ★★★★☆
This historical fiction is the story of three generations of the Freeman family, and the terrible, lasting consequences of slavery. This was very illuminating in the sense that it does NOT let you forget how not that far away slavery is from the present and how its scars go much deeper than many people like to think. It was a powerful but also beautifully written story that I really appreciated. Plus ghosts are always a great thing to read about!
Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi ★★★★☆
This was such a dark, gritty, delicious fantasy story of a girl called Ada whose body is inhabited by gods, children of the snake god Ala. I loved it very much – it’s such an addictive read and felt like “How did this story not exist before?”. I wish it had made it to the shortlist!
Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss ★★★★★
This was another book I just could not put down. I seriously think this is the best book in this list and it’s a shame it did not make the shortlist. It’s gorgeously written, and emotionally raw. I read it in one sitting and could not stop thinking about it.