Tomorrow, April 3rd, marks the announcement of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlist. A mere 26 days after the longlist of 16 acclaimed works by women was announced, the nominees for this prestigious prize will be reduced to 6. I have made it through 14 of the 16 longlisters, with mixed impressions of the choices and a renewed confidence and excitement about the future of women’s writing. Were it up to me, these are the 6 nominees which I believe belong on the shortlist. Tomorrow will tell how my tastes compare to the judges panel.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
“The Essex Serpent” is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Perry writes a novel set 125 years ago that is alive and resonant today, a tale beautifully knotted like a centuries-old tree. Perry’s twists and turns manage to carry a multiplicity of timeless themes. Her story is about being true to one’s self, about the essential drive to find one’s place in this world. It is also about the power of myth, the enduring nature of love, and the eternal battle between the haves and the have-nots. This was one of the best books I read last year and I was thrilled at its appearance on the Baileys List.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an elegantly crafted work which details the struggles and loves of three generations of a family in revolutionary China. Using gentle, artistic strokes which evoke the Chinese calligraphy she so often invokes, Thien gives shape and substance to life under Mao, through the cultural revolution, and after the atrocities in Tiananmen Square. Thien’s writing is spectacular. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, this novel is breathtaking and memorable and belongs on the Baileys Short List.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman’s electrifying novel “The Power” is framed as a book within a book; it is an historical novel from thousands of years in the future. In a time ill-defined but not to distant from now, girls all over the world begin to discover that they have a power, an electrical charge from within which they can nurture and control to enormous effect. Slowly, powerfully, girls and women awaken their inner power and begin to resist the patriarchies which have dominated the world since time immemorial. Alderman’s dystopian vision is like quicksilver, mesmerizing and empowering, horrifying and disheartening. She turns the world on its head with such confidence and courage, taking the “what ifs” to their very extreme. “The Power” is brilliant and well deserving of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Midwinter by Fiona Melrose
Fiona Melrose’s debut novel “Midwinter” is aptly named. The titular characters are Landyn and Vale Midwinter, a father and son in rural Suffolk. But Midwinter isn’t just the surname of the main characters; it is the mood, the ambiance of the book. “Midwinter” is deeply quiet, starkly still like a midwinter’s day in a snow-filled wood. “Midwinter” is something special and unique, a pastoral look at family, love, guilt, and manhood, all from an eerily insider view that is, at least at some level, brilliantly contrived. Melrose writes with beautiful simplicity; her story is bucolic but not naive. Reading “Midwinter” is like a restorative stay in a quiet, wooded cabin. Resplendent and refined.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
Pierrot and Rose are tragic, star-crossed lovers, abandoned as infants at the same Montreal orphanage in 1914. Rose is quixotic, balletic, and fearless, always unafraid to be herself and unquenchably curious about the world outside. Pierrot, on the other hand, is a drifter, a musician, and a bit of a cad. A naturally gifted pianist, Pierrot fumbles through life, ad libbing and vamping and, often, following the tides. “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is an odyssey; it rends Rose and Pierrot apart and then painstakingly traces their labyrinthian paths back to one another. It is deeply dark and in some ways unrelentingly cynical, though the light of true love always flickers around the corner. It is full of gorgeously biting social commentary, particularly about the roles and rigors of women. What makes “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” most remarkable, however, is its hyperbolic, almost garish, use of similes. Heather O’Neill engages all of the readers’ senses through some of the most ingenious and original turns of simile I’ve ever encountered. She is the Queen of the Simile and “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is a treasure trove.
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
“Stay with Me” is story of trust and deception, of deeply intertwined lives and the desperate love of motherhood. Yejide is a strong Nigerian woman, deeply in love with her husband Akin and desperate to become a mother. Motherhood is the ultimate goal and, to some, the soul purpose of being a woman. Through the eyes of Yejide and Akin, the reader is shown the heights and depths of a marriage. We see that both Yejide and Akin, in their desperation to cling together, stretch and bend and mar the truth, ultimately driving a wedge between them that seems too great to overcome. Aboyami Adebayo’s debut is brilliant. In it, Adebayo spins formidably complex emotional threads with clarity and simplicity. Her characters are beguiling and their heartaches are painfully real.