Reading

Halfway Through the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist – Many Thoughts, Mini Reviews

It has been an extended hiatus for me here at Chronic Bib – not from reading, but from writing and sharing my bibliophilic musings. But the tug of the Women’s Prize is too much to resist, and talking to myself and my faithful cats about the books I am reading has crossed the hazy border of charming folly into something more sinister. Add “social distancing” to that mix, and it’s time to venture back into the interwebs to talk books. And so…

This year’s longlist has returned to form with 16 nominees – novels written by women, in English, and published in the U.K. between April 1 and March 31. Here are my thoughts on the the first half of those nominees.

01Evaristo2-articleLargeGirl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
Co-winner of the 2019 MAN Booker Prize, Evaristo’s eighth novel is an absolute treasure. Written in free verse, the stories of multiple black women are interwoven into a novel of intergenerational, queer, feminist delight. Evaristo’s writing is often raw and yet other times highly polished. This book is a wonder and rightful contender for the Women’s Prize.

81aDPmLZVpL

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
“Queenie” is an empathy-arousing and compelling story of a black woman in her twenties in London, struggling to find her place in this world. The point of view was fresh and felt ‘authentic’, but the structure, concept, and writing were all a bit too

‘everyday’, too familiar, to claim a spot on Women’s Prize list, in my opinion.

71Mqq9O4T2LRed at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
This book is lovingly crafted by Jacqueline Woodson, and that it is reason enough to read it. Woodson, who always manages to bare the souls of black girls in a way that makes me wonder how she knows so many lives so intimately, tells the story both of 16 year old Melody, but also of her birth to parents of the same age. It is a complicated and thoughtful look at race, coming of age, gentrification, individualism, and struggle at every level. And it is pure, heartbreaking beauty.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz 7167iiDUeAL
Though the setting (1960s New York City) and the themes – poverty, political strife, and immigration – were quite familiar, the voice of “Dominicana” was fresh, her particular perspective as yet rarely told. This child bride, essentially sold by her family as their anchor to a better life in the US, shows the reader a baffling and complicated world, a life full of false doors, dead ends, and traps and also a girl who shows herself to be a woman of endless heart and strength and cunning.

91-GlU+c39L

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
It has been quite some time since I read this book, and I have to say I was the most surprised by its appearance on the longlist, so much so that I had to go back to confirm that it had, in fact, been written by a woman. This fascinating story of the simultaneous breakdown of a heterosexual couple in the midst of parenting, in which both sides are (eventually) explored, was allegedly a feminist gem, but I found it too centered on the male main character and too trope-fillled to be a useful critique of much of anything. More of a summer read than a prize-worthy treasure.

Weather by Jenny Offill 91PyLaqW5VL
Jenny Offill is a goddamn genius. This contemporary story of life and chaos and the maddening voices in society and in our heads is Offill at her finest. The tightness of her writing, her story advanced by beautifully placed jewels, temptations along a forgotten path, make a story that should feel staccato and off-putting but is fluid and sumptuous.

81kohIlv0xL Girl by Edna O’Brien
While the writing is beautiful and the impact is visceral – this book contains some of the most painful rape scenes I’ve ever encountered – I was never able to get right with the book itself. I was (and still am) questioning the author’s right to tell this story as a privileged, upper class white woman from the UK. I respect the efforts O’Brien made to research her subject, but at the end of the day, it feels transgressive, appropriative, colonial, and inexcusable. I found it telling that all of the blurbs on the book’s jacket were from other white authors despite the veritable treasure trove of black African female writers having a critical tour de force moment on the world literary stage.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett 91TscA6252L
When it comes to Ann Patchett, I’ll admit to being a completionist, just as I will admit that not all Ann Patchett novels are equal. “The Dutch House”, by my account, is one of her best. The story of two deeply enmeshed siblings, cast off their rapidly decaying familial estate by their stepmother, this book is such a clever rendering of fairy tale motifs, with acerbic wit, cutting dialogue, and beautiful spaces.

In the next installment:

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
Actress by Anne Enright
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Any one else reading through the Women’s Prize Longlist (partially or fully)? Thoughts on any of these titles?

Bailey's Prize, books, Debut Novel, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gowar and “Sight” by Jessie Greengrass

“A loss is not a void.
          A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives.”

Among the many treasures on the Women’s Prize Longlist this year, two absolute gems – debuts of gorgeous polish and poise, with mold-shattering feminist protagonists one can’t help but love – are Imogen Hermes Gowar’s “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” and Jessie Greengrass’s “Sight”. Both books were unquestionably five-star reads for me and, I assume, for the Women’s Prize panel which put them through to the Shortlist of 6. Though my American readers will either have to be patient or do what I did and order their books from overseas (both titles are released in the US this Fall), any book lover would be remiss in leaving these novels off of her must-read list.

IMG_0348


Set in the late 1780s in the working class world of merchant Deptford, on the outskirts of London, and the high class world of elite brothels, “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is simultaneously an old-fashioned novel of the style of Henry James and Jane Austen and a delightfully, unflinchingly modern novel in its willingness to adopt classical euphemisms while describing sex and scandal with naughty details and unabashed glee.

Jonah Hancock, a widower and lifelong merchant, finds himself in possession of a questionable treasure; a captain has sold one of Hancock’s ships in order to procure the twisted, monstrous body of what he claims is a mermaid. Hancock is a rather dull, habitual man, unaccustomed to and unprepared for publicity or society.

“He is a man well designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant’s son – a son of Deptford – whose place is not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he sends out into the world – the Eagle, the Calliope, the Lorenzo – cross and re-cross the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, falls asleep each night in the room in which he first drew breath.”

Unsure how to monetize his new ‘treasure’, Hancock is approached by Bet Chappell, a leading madam in the brothel scene, who offers to rent the mermaid as a center-piece for a series of lavish (and orgiastic) Bacchanals.

“‘Dear sir!’ she says. ‘Delighted, delighted.’ He does not like procuresses – women debauched in their own youth who usher the next generation to the same fate – but he is relieved that his mermaid’s entrée into high society has been overseen by an expert. She has launched numberless girls into their glittering careers: she can be assumed to manage the same for his wizened freak.”

It is at Chappell’s establishment that Hancock meets the captivating Angelica Neal, a well-known and sought after courtesan.

“She is twenty-seven and still beautiful, which owes something to luck and something to circumstance and something to good sense. Her bright blue eyes and voluptuous smile are gifts of Nature; her body and mind are unmarked by the toils she might have known as a wife; her skin is clear, her grot fragrant, and her nose still whole thanks to the little pouches of sheep gut she keeps in her cabinet, tied with green ribbons and carefully rinsed after each use.”

Gowar’s language is delicious, full of wit, winks, and wonder. The sentence above, which in some hands could be a lurid description of a prostitute’s bodily upkeep through the use of primitive condoms, is as charming and pert as the beribboned picture it conjures. The mix of Georgian imagery and colloquialisms with modern humor and an exquisite narrative gift makes this book as magical a treasure as it’s titular sea creature.


In Jessie Greengrass’s debut “Sight”, our unnamed narrator interweaves her nearly-debilitating inner struggle with the decision on whether or not to become a parent with the story of her mother’s death and with historical narratives of scientific discovery, particularly those which transformed the way we see the world, such as the invention of the x-ray and the moving picture. Though she has no name, the narrator is anything but anonymous; she bares her soul – her undoing by grief, her paralyzing ambivalence about parenthood, and her journey to continue to find and build herself as a woman and a mother and a daughter and a partner.

When her mother dies, our narrator becomes physically ill and is seemingly adrift, left in her mother’s home among her mother’s lifetime of belongings.

“This is where grief is found, in these suddenly unfilled cracks, these responsibilities – minute, habitual – which have lain elsewhere for years and which, having failed amongst grief’s greater broil to be reapportioned, are overlooked in favour of the more dramatic, until even the ordinary starts to crumble. If I thought, all through those freezing months I had spent alone in a house whose owner had abandoned us, that I did not grieve, then it was because I had been expecting something else – something both larger and lesser, a monument or a mountain, simple, scaleable, and not this seeping in of space to undermine the smooth continuance of things. I had thought that loss would be dramatic, that it would be a kind of exercise, when instead it was the emptiness of everything going on as before and nothing working as it ought.”

The speaker’s anguish is always palpable, often contagious. Never before have I encountered such a deep, visceral, and resonant accounting of the ambivalence I personally felt about deciding to become a parent. When she finally comes to a decision with her partner, her sense of calm and relief is nearly tangible; I could feel her heavy-chested sigh.

“I knew that I wanted a child and it was only the point of crossing from the abstract to the particular which was at issue, that gap I saw between myself and the people who were mothers already, my fear of being found wanting, but I was not alone – there was Johannes, strong where I was not, and after all we were only people and a part of us was made for this, I wouldn’t fail any further than others did; but most of all I had exhausted myself with indecision and was too tired for any more of it. I wanted to think about something else. I wanted the whole thing to be over and done, and the only way for that to happen was for me to do that thing which I had wanted from the start.”

Greengrass writes with such knowing and poise, shaping a novel that is painfully intimate whether it is featuring the inner-most thoughts and demons to which even a journal may not be privy, or casting scientific discoveries in a strikingly personal, human light. Reading “Sight” was sometimes cathartic, sometimes cutting. I wanted to curl around it, hold it tight, shush away its wounds and lick my own.