Since 1996, the Women’s Prize for Fiction has recognised some of the finest novels of our times including Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Known by other names in the past (Orange Prize for fifteen years), the prize is arguably more synonymous with exceptional writing than other major literary prizes whose winners are often met with an uneven or ambivalent response from readers.
The winner of the prize in 2016, Irish writer Lisa McInerney, pointed out “that when people are experiencing writing written by women or people of colour or LGBT people or trans people…It’s almost like your difference is the first thing people look on. To be in a prize, reading or group just for women, it means that whole kind of difference is skipped over.” And the longlist of such a prize allows excellent novels by women to sit beside one another, and for once, not have to jostle for space with some less accomplished writing by men.
This year’s longlist of sixteen novels include three South Asian writers whose fiction probes the crises of our times – Meena Kandasamy’s novel reveals the private tyranny of men who claim to be liberal and progressive in their public lives, Kamila Shamsie’s characters ask themselves what it means to be Muslim today, and Arundhati Roy casts her eye upon who and how one is marginalised in India. The conversation between the three is undeniable, and whether any of them make it to the shortlist a moment is needed to acknowledge that South Asian fiction by women is thriving and more generous in its scope and relevance than ever.
We look at the sixteen novels – they make for a handy reading list of books by women – chosen out of almost two hundred to be on the 2018 longlist.
H(A)PPY, Nicola Barker
It’s already won the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, which recognises genre-bending novels. Set in a universe far into a future that has lived through the apocalypse and the aftermath, H(A)PPY envisions a world where a group of thinkers have eliminated war, violence, anger, sadness, and every other one of the world’s problems. The mechanism they use to moderate the population is a monitored virtual reality, where every person’s thoughts and excesses are recorded and observed. The operation is entirely voluntary, but very few humans opt out.
Mira A is part of the programme but finds herself unable to stop expressing emotions and attachments that are deemed too extreme for a world built to cull out all excess. Will the man sent to help Mira work out the glitches show her how to be h(a)ppy within the system, or will Mira be forced to join the humans on the outside?
The Idiot, Elif Batuman
Batuman’s love for language is well-known. Her protagonist in The Idiot, Selin, is a young college student who falls for an older man. It is the early, charming days of email, whose ability to create a chain of messages that Selin can revisit over and over allow her to find a kind of intimacy that drunken encounters in dorm rooms do not. Selin is defined by an interiority that hobbles her place in the world more than it strengthens it. The Idiot is a novel driven by thought, hesitation and retreat that may frustrate readers who wish for movement, and for accountability for the character.
Three Things About Elsie, Joanna Cannon
Here’s one for fans of Fredrik Bachman’s My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologies and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. The eighty-four-year-old Florence has a fall, and as she lies on the floor of her flat, she thinks back on her life, including her friendship with Elsie, and a secret that has bothered her all this time. Her memory has started to fail, and her recollections confuse her. When a man moves into her old apartment, she’s convinced he’s someone who was supposed to have died sixty years ago. She joins forces with her equally aged friend Jack to uncover the mystery.
Miss Burma, Charmaine Craig
This novel tells the story of an old feud between the country’s Jews and the Karen ethnic community. Though the Rohingya crisis is far better known and exists on a significantly larger scale, the othering of the Karen community is what Craig brings to light in a novel loosely based on the lives of her mother who became Miss Burma, and of her grandparents, who were a Jewish man and Karen woman, respectively. The novel traces Burma’s brutal history since independence from the British in 1948 – a colonial rule that greatly deepened communal divides within the country. Peopled with ordinary citizens, activists, and famous politicians in Burma, the novel closely follows the journey of the nation.
Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
Egan focuses on the family of an Irish man who becomes embroiled in organised crime during the Depression. His disappearance devastates his family, and it will be many years before his daughter, Anna, who now supports her mother and disabled sister, will have an opportunity to learn what transpired. During the Second World War, she is the first female diver to repair ships at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. When she runs into Dexter, the mobster her father worked with, she conceals her identity and embarks on a relationship with him, desperate to understand the events that changed her life forever.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar
In this fantastical tale set in the 1780s, a merchant, Mr Hancock, learns that one of his captains has sold a ship in exchange for what he describes as a “mermaid” – a small half-monkey, half-fish creature who is dead. Soon, the widowed Mr Hancock is elevated to high society via a brothel whose clients are more than interested in having such a curiosity displayed at their parties. But when he meets and marries the most desirable courtesan of the time, Angelica, they find themselves in a life far more surreal than either of them could have anticipated.
Sight, Jessie Greengrass
This novel is told in the voice of an unnamed young woman who has nursed her own mother through a terminal illness, and is torn about her own, advancing pregnancy. The reader is taken through her memories, her complex relationships with her family, and her thoughts on Freud, a pioneer of modern surgery named John Hunter, and Wilhelm Röntgen, who was the first man to look systematically at x-rays. This is a slow, meditative novel about the contradictory desire and dread for parenthood, and the effort to stay one’s self through life-altering events.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
A dark, readable thriller, it is neatly divided into two sections, titled “Good Days” and “Bad Days”, respectively. Thirty-year-old Eleanor’s days are made up of a careful routine which she never deviates from. On the weekend, she always drinks exactly two bottles of vodka by herself. She speaks to her mysterious mother once a week, and one day she is prompted to leave the routine of her life to find a boyfriend her mother will approve of. But Eleanor is about to bring the entire house of cards down on herself and discover what she’s buried – and what her life can be if she chooses to get past it.
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, Meena Kandasamy
This is the story of a young, brilliant woman who marries a man she believes to be equally clever and liberal. They’re brought together by shared political ideals, but under the charismatic façade of political forwardness is an angry, controlling and violent husband who will systematically demean, isolate, beat and rape her. Based on Kandasamy’s own abusive marriage, the novel is a harrowing investigation into the ways in which women continue to be policed.
Elmet, Fiona Mozley
Elmet is centred around a prizefighter who builds his children and himself a cabin in a deserted area of the woods. But the land belongs to a local goon whose history with the prizefighter’s dead wife only makes him angrier about the trespassing. The cabin throws two extremely different families into each other’s path, and the prizefighter must contend with the danger and the harm his unconventional lifestyle has brought to his children. This one is a violent read, sometimes needlessly so. Be warned.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
Roy follows two key characters. Anjum is a transgender person trying to survive in New Delhi, and Tilo resembles the writer greatly – she too is an architect-turned-activist. The novel reaches across the length and breadth of India’s political suppressions and resistance movements, especially those in Kashmir, and because of this sheer scope it either defeats or hooks the reader.
See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt
If what you crave from a book that borrows from notorious, historical events is a vivid imagining of the truth rather than an alternate version of events, then this one may appeal to you. Schmidt’s story is interested in the build-up to Lizzie Borden’s infamous murder of her father and stepmother. She looks at Lizzie’s fraught relationship with her stepmother, her spinsterhood, her alleged relationship with the housemaid, and her factors that lead Lizzie slowly towards insanity and violence. Think Hannah Kent’s The Good People, but told through the perspective of four characters.
A Boy in Winter, Rachel Seiffert
It is 1941, and German soldiers are rounding up Jews in a small village in Ukraine. A Boy in Winter covers the lives of five people over three days. Two young brothers choose to run instead of reporting at the warehouse where Jews have been summoned. A German engineer overseeing construction tries to avert his eyes from the masses being marched away from their homes. A young woman tries to locate her boyfriend who works for the police. A Russian soldier deserts the retreating Soviet army. Seiffert’s skilful prose shines a light on a well-known chapter in Europe’s history with the possible purpose of reminding readers of parallels with the current refugee crisis.
Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie
This modern retelling of the Antigone legend examines the various implications of being an urban Muslim in the West. How does one continue to articulate one’s faith if any display of it is deemed suspicious? Isma has raised her twin siblings after their mother’s untimely death, but as they enter adulthood, she finds herself less able to steer them away from danger. When Isma runs into the son of a prominent British Muslim politician, their worlds of privilege and misfortune, irreligiosity and steadfast faith collide with devastating consequences.
The Trick to Time, Kit de Waal
Sixty-year-old Mona crafts dolls and counsels grieving mothers who lose their children during their pregnancies or at birth. She revisits her past as a young Irish girl who has the opportunity to move to and live in Birmingham in the ’70s. The life she makes for herself there, and the reasons it is lost to her, form the central plot of the novel. Out in April 2018.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
The winner of the National Book Award in the US is likely to be a frontrunner for the Women’s Prize as well. Jojo and Kayla are being raised by their grandparents in a town where their blackness puts them in profound danger. Their white father, Michael, is in prison, and their mother, Leonie, is an addict who often disappears. When their father’s release date approaches, Leonie packs her estranged and resisting children into a car to pick him up, and every character besides Leonie is afraid of what might happen next.