Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction: shortlist reviews
Grace Dent, Bettany Hughes, Stephen Mangan, Anthony Horowitz, Anita Rani and Danny Wallace on tomorrow’s potential winners
The Power by Naomi Alderman, reviewed by Danny Wallace, is the bookies’ favourite to win the Baileys Prize tomorrow
With the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction winner announcement due tomorrow, bookmakers William Hill have British author Naomi Alderman as favourite at 9/4 to win with her fourth novel, The Power.
This is the first time Alderman has been shortlisted for the Prize. Her writing has won many accolades including the Orange Award for New Writers and in 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in their once-a-decade list.
Second favourite at 5/2 is debut Nigerian novelist Ayobami Adebayo, for her first novel Stay with Me. At 29, Adebayo is the youngest writer on the shortlist. Close behind at 5/1 is American author CE Morgan’s second novel, The Sport of Kings. Last year, Morgan won the Kirkus Prize and Windham-Campbell Literature Prize and in 2009 was named a five under 35 by the National Book Foundation.
In joint fourth place at 6/1 is British writer Gwendoline Riley for her fifth novel First Love, and Canadian author Madeleine Thien for her third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Riley’s writing has won a Betty Trask Award and a Somerset Maugham Award, and has been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Thien won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Do Not Say We Have Nothing which was also shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.
Fifth favourite at 7/1 is London-based novelist Linda Grant for her sixth novel The Dark Circle. Grant won the prize in 2000 with her second novelWhen I Lived in Modern Times. She was also longlisted in 2008 for The Clothes On Their Backs.
Set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote international fiction by women throughout the world to the widest range of readers possible, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded for the best novel of the year written by a woman. Any woman writing in English – whatever her nationality, country of residence, age or subject matter – is eligible.
The 22nd winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be presented with a cheque for £30,000 and a limited edition bronze statue known as “the Bessie”, created by artist Grizel Niven on Wednesday, June 7th, in the Royal Festival Hall in London.
The prize organisers invited six well-known book-lovers to review the shortlisted titles: journalist, author and a former judge, Grace Dent; author, broadcaster and a former chair of judges, Bettany Hughes; actor Stephen Mangan; novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz; television and radio presenter Anita Rani; and actor and comedian Danny Wallace.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Reviewed by Grace Dent
The very best literature leaves you viewing the world slightly differently. That’s the novel’s ultimate gift. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing showed me a part of history I knew only in the smallest sense.
Thien depicts China before Mao Zedong through to Communist one-party rule and the Great Leap Forward, and after, distressing scenes of Tiananmen Square. This isn’t a dry historical tract. It’s beautiful, precise writing about family ties, mothers and daughters, secrets, shame and duty. It’s a book about China’s global diaspora, in this case Li Ling in Canada, attempting to make sense of China’s past by examining folklore, handed-down notebooks and determined questioning. I’ve certainly never read anything told through the eyes of a female Chinese-Canadian mathematician. This is one of the wonderful things about the Baileys Prize. Voices not typically championed are pushed forward. This book echoes and bubbles in the mind long after one has finished. Many of Thien’s characters – the ancestors whom Li Ling researches – are talented musicians, composers, singers and storytellers. All are living through a political era where their talent is deemed subversive.
Thien’s book asks the question: would you have died for your compulsion to be creative? Or would you have been swept away by Zedong’s vision of a braver, fairer world? Thien leaves the reader faltering between their noble aims and harsh reality as they witness a country consumed by cruelty. Not an easy book, but a mighty one.
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
Reviewed by Bettany Hughes
The joy of the best books is that they cosy up the epic with the mundane. Great writing allows our minds to do what neuroscientists tell us they are physiologically set up to do – to travel across time and space and to imagine ourselves in the hands and hearts of others. Stay With Me does this to the power of X; on the pages of this captivating debut novel we recognise women and men who fret over the stomach-churning, quotidian tragedies of daily life while grand tragedies play out around them. And so our focus is Yejide and her desperation to have children – and then her struggle to preserve both her marriage against the lure of polygamy and the lives of her babies born ill with sickle-cell anaemia.
This domestic drama plays out against the backdrop of high octane geo-politics: the challenges of 1980s Nigeria intrude rudely into our protagonists’ lives – there is stomach-tightening drama and the banality of brutal, bored cruelty. But this sprightly narrative is far from as bleak as it sounds, as well as moments of brilliantly observed comedy – breastfeeding a goat to try to coax a womb into fertility – twists and turns in the plot keep the suspense high and the rumbling threat of civil strife and corruption force you to care deeply for the characters, and crucially, to respect the age-old power of mother-love.
Many of the original ideas for Stay With Me were tapped out while the author sat in three-hour traffic jams on the way to her first job in a bank in Lagos. With lively dialogue and super-sharp observation, my journeys on planes, buses, trains and Tubes reading Stay with Me were filled with the scent and sounds of jangling Yoruba communities and the backstreets of Nigeria – as well as with the acrid spoil of stubborn, blind, male pride.
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Reviewed by Stephen Mangan
It’s the end of the 1940s and Britain is slowly recovering from the pummeling it received during the second World War. Attlee’s government is rolling out its socialist agenda, including the creation of the NHS, and the country is experiencing arguably the greatest upheaval in its history, creating a fluidity and social mobility never seen before or since. For some, though, the battle is just beginning. A diverse group find themselves incarcerated at a sanatorium in Kent, suffering from tuberculosis. An ancient and deadly disease, the treatments then were crude; fresh air, literally living out doors on verandas in all weathers, or the deliberate collapsing of a lung to allow the lesions to heal. It wasn’t killing a quarter of the population as it had done a century earlier but it was still a significant threat.
As during the war, Britain looked west to America for salvation and turned the corner with the arrival of streptomycin and other antibiotics.
The Dark Circle captures the period leading up to this redemption beautifully, both the drab austerity and the mixture of exhaustion, tension and energy. Twins Lenny and Miriam, East End Jews, are beacons of tenacity and verve among the grey and class-bound inmates of the sanatorium. They are joined later by the brashness and pizzazz of the New World in the shape of another life-force, rebel American Arthur Persky. We get to know many of the inmates. These multiple narratives are skillfully woven.
It’s a beautiful book, a dark world full of irrepressible light. Linda Grant writes with such empathy and compassion not just of these battles with a deadly disease, but with the battles we all face: the battle to become ourselves, to learn to love, to live with our weaknesses, our failings and our mistakes, and of our battle with our own mortality. And further, as it opens out, her book is about society’s ongoing battle with itself, to hang on to the opportunities for greater good that the shock of war opened up. Here we are, in 2017, and the re-emergence of tuberculosis feels like a rebuke.
The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan
Reviewed by Anthony Horowitz
Having no interest in horses or horse-racing, I was rather concerned to be handed the 545 pages of CE Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. A quick peek at earlier reviews assured me that many consider it to be a great American novel – but even that description is off-putting. I’m afraid I’ve never made it to the end of Moby-Dick.
I needn’t have worried. This is a monumental piece of work and, as a writer myself, I found myself almost breathless in admiration at the scope, the language and the ambition of a book which is, yes, a dynastic saga set in the American south, centring on a horse by the name of Hellsmouth, but which actually goes much, much further, tackling black history in America in a way that is challenging, shocking and urgent.
A sequence in which two black slaves escape into Ohio would alone be worth the cover price. Longer sequences such as the central character, the mixed-race Allmon Shaughnessy, helplessly descending into poverty and crime, are utterly convincing. But almost every sentence sings out. Horses whicker, crickets thrum, windows whine and summer comes “like an Egyptian plague”. When a mare is being sired, “her bright vulva pulsed like two clapping hands”. Morgan’s gaze is universal, almost god-like. The novel is set between the 1950s and the 1980s but reaches out to the Pleistocene age. Her eye sweeps across all America but then settles on the single chromosome of a thoroughbred.
Just occasionally it is overwritten. I could have done with fewer tense changes, lists, nursery rhymes and author interventions (“…as sure as I wrote this…” she interjects at one point). The book is at its best when its brilliantly drawn characters and the narrative drive – a race riot, a horse race – sweep you off your feet. It would make great television but television would ruin it. This is a great read.
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Reviewed by Anita Rani
As soon as I’d finished reading First Love, I wanted to start it all over again.
Gwendoline Riley is a master wordsmith. I’m in awe of her ability to create such strength of feeling from so few words. The short, sharp, succinctness of her sentences parallels the awkwardness and hopelessness of her characters’ relationships. I found myself cringing from the raw emotion she is able to express. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, quite the opposite. It’s a smart and refreshingly truthful look at love, her comedy is dark and her darkness is bleak but if you want an honest portrayal of love, relationships and how our past never leaves us, this is a very satisfying read.
Neve, the protagonist of the story, is a 30-something writer married to an older man, Edwyn. The book explores Neve’s relationships with her husband, parents and ex part-time American lover Michael.
Each relationship is difficult. Her mother left her father because he was abusive. Her father is a bully and her mother is self-absorbed. Then her father dies by eating himself to death. There are funny moments in the interaction between Neve and her mother, but in the background there’s a constant dull ache as we see the emotional baggage Neve is carrying.
Neve is smart and needy. At times you wish she had more friends who might give her some strength or at least loosen her up enough to be able to laugh every so often. Michael, the American lover, is not interested in her and yet knowing this she still allows herself to want him. Neve exposes her feelings in an email and the reply is awkward and painful.
The cruel unflinching dialogue between Neve and her husband Edwyn is the most stomach-churning. We can see Neve is a product of her dysfunctional upbringing. She’s in a toxic marriage, is smart enough to see what it is but somehow seems trapped. Edwyn is a misogynist, a master manipulator, a horrible bully. It’s at the end where we really bear witness to Riley’s brilliance, as she makes us feel sympathy for him. Do they stay together? I hope not.
The beauty is in the reality.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Reviewed by Danny Wallace
I’m a sucker for speculative fiction. I love a What If? And do you know what? Who can guess what it could possibly be, but there’s just something vaguely dystopian in the air these days that tells me the world might be a very different place if the balance of power were tilted in favour of women.
The Power appeals to me on all these levels and more. Having been a teenage boy, I am more than acutely aware of a teenage girl’s power to wound. But in her high-concept social exploration, Naomi Alderman throws us into a brave new world in which that power becomes many things: a weapon, a solution, a terror, a relief.
It’s an ambitious novel – the kind that will find itself on reading lists in schools and colleges before too long – and one through which you can feel the thrill of the author as she finds a deep well of ideas to draw from to feed her big idea. It’s a thrill she passes straight to the reader.
It’s also a book that, without spoiling it for you, will have you asking your own set of questions about the state of the world, the way forward, the true nature of power, and the true nature of – well – nature.
Cleverly structured, brilliantly imagined and skillfully written, The Power is a compelling and relevant work.