Petition for superfreak Scarlett Cayford to judge the Women’s Prize for Fiction next year: she read her way through the entire 2019 longlist, for fun. Here are her reckons on the top six.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which has been subject to unremitting praise, didn’t make the cut while Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman scored a slot. Ghost Wall got a lot of love on social media (and is well worth a read) but got left on the shelf.
And while it was always unlikely that Melissa Broder’s slippery salty merman fuckfest, The Pisces, would get much in the way of critical adulation, I’m sad that it didn’t make the shortlist. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever read. I now can’t think about oysters without thinking about testes. Sashimi makes me feel horny and shameful. The book’s not discussed below but I highly recommend reading it anyway, especially if you’re open to being aroused by fish.
Salmon sex aside, this is a robust shortlist, neatly sliced into myth, murder and mundane. My rankings shifted as I wrote, revisiting the plots I gobbled up over a month or so, and I’m still not entirely certain that I shouldn’t put An American Marriage in first place – but here’s what I settled on.
6 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
I studied Classics. I know an ionic pillar from the other kind. I’ve looked at broken vases. I’m not against novelisation of Greek myths per se, I’m just a bit… Listen, I know Achilles liked to fuck. I know the whole melding of mortal and immortal worlds was a spicy meatball. I know there is no such thing as a new story. I’m just a bit bored of being subjected to endless retelling. Can I open a book and not read about the siege of Troy? Is every single day doomed to be literary Groundhog Day?
Quite apart from my beef with urns, I was surprised at the inclusion of this book on the shortlist. It’s not a bad book. It’s just not an exciting spin on the old stories. Barker attempts her own twist on the tired tropes by giving voices to Homer’s women, starting with Briseis, who watches the sack of her city, then spends the next 100 pages in the sack with Achilles. The language has its lovely moments, and her renderings of the plague of rats is fetid and bloody and enjoyable, but the pages are also loaded with cliche. Frankly, the only bits I really enjoyed were when Briseis didn’t wash after swimming in the sea and Achilles was ferociously licking the salt off her skin, and it didn’t take me long to realise that I was enjoying it because it reminded me of the salty merman balls of The Pisces.
5 Circe by Madeline Miller
Madeline Miller is a lyrical, purple writer who knows how to wring all the juice out of a sentence, but this simply doesn’t feel like a year for trying to construct something new out of something old: it feels like a time for modernity and force. Miller took the prize in 2012 for The Song of Achilles, her retelling of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and I just don’t think they’re going to give the prize to the same author twice. They’ve never done it before. Next.
4 My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
The first and most important thing about this book is that it’s very short. I think that’s something to endear a book to a reader in this age of The Luminaries and A Little Life. Ali Smith and Ann Patchett, both previous winners of this illustrious prize, are big fans of crisp prose and sub-300 page novels, and I think it’s a format that deserves more daylight. Fast fiction. Fictionlite. At a succinct 240 pages, My Sister, the Serial Killer does exactly what it says on the tin: there is a narrator, and her sister is a serial killer.
But it’s not light on content. Oh no! I want to rub my enemies up against this book version of a cheese grater. It’s not subtle, but it’s made more darkly fascinating because of this, a clandestine back alley meeting of a book. The narrative begins as Ayoola (dread-locked, sinuous, sexy) slides a knife into the back of a man she’s sleeping with, and her sister, Ayode (salty, snubbed, much less beautiful) helps her hide the body by hefting it into the boot of her car and leaving it under a bridge. We soon learn that this is not the first such occurrence. The plot thickens when Ayoola meets the attractive doctor at Ayode’s work, and Ayode finds her loyalties divided.
Reading it is a little like watching Dexter, or Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. You know where the guilt lies. You know the likely path of events. You know you’re not supposed to root for the murderer. But you can’t help being drawn down their path because you kind of want to see them naked.
Ayode, the big sister and body-carrier is a great voice as a narrator, stern and strict all while she bleaches blood out of the boot of her car. Always a secondary voice to her seductive sister, we watch her writhe within her role, defaulting always to family loyalty. With strong undertones of sexism and suppression, Braithwaite’s near-novella’s bright and scathing language belies its dark subject matter. Pair with a strong cocktail and your dirtiest secret and serve rare.
3 Milkman by Anna Burns
I’ve already been proven wrong on this very site in my ability to properly estimate the skills of Anna Burns, so far be it from me to bump her a long way down this list. The middle seems safe for this highly literary, almost unbearably rich, Booker Prize winner, which follows the plight of the unnamed protagonist, an unnamed girl surviving the Troubles in Northern Ireland, avidly pursued by a sinister would-be suitor.
There are different ways of reading books. Some, you absorb in a single sitting. You take them in so quickly, it’s like osmosis. You can’t tell where the book ends and you begin. Those are the kind of books I love the best, and those are the kind I have slotted at the top of this list.
The other kinds of books are harder work. They require time to sit down and sink in. You have to make it happen. They’re no less worthy (some would say more so), but there are always sharp delineations between you and the book. Those kind of books have boundaries. Milkman is one such book. It’s an unusual book, thick with unusual phrasing and odd techniques, but it makes its mark (the cat skull, her lack of free will, the cruelty of her family, that ever-present white van). It’s hard to compare it to anything, which makes it hard to assess as winner material (if the Booker Prize often goes to Difficult Literature then the Women’s Prize is more often won by Readable Literature), but it has certainly won a great deal of fans, and reading it is guaranteed to make you feel a solid 12% smarter than when you embarked upon it. Abandoning it 70% of the way through because life is too short will do the opposite. It’s simply a chance you have to take.
2 An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage tells the tale of Roy, a young black man wrongfully convicted of rape, and his wife, Celestial, who awaits his return from prison. It is a love story told unlovingly. Roy attempts to clear his name while Celestial tries to remember why she loved him in the first place, separated from him by more than bars. Though they are parted almost from the first page, this isn’t a book about prison, but rather about the impossibility of combining two flawed lives, written beautifully and studded throughout with musical and literary allusions. Much of the novel is told in epistolary fashion, and we watch the breakdown of a relationship through increasingly short, intermittent and painful letters, as Celestial’s artistic career soars, and Roy sinks deeper into the prison system.
It’s not as dark as it sounds. The language is musical and unusual enough to provide a counterpoint to the plot, and the two broken central characters are appealing in the immensely human way they interact. It’s not a testament to strength but rather to endurance – and Jones doesn’t shrink from the inevitably political nature of her tale. The ease with which his conviction occurs alone is enough to make the reader blanch.
In the end, it’s Roy who carries you with him. Celestial, succeeding on the outside, inevitably comes across as selfish, and Roy, as the underdog, is the character you must root for. It’s hard to fully paint a picture of this novel without giving away key plot points but suffice to say: though the plot relies on a few extraordinary coincidences, this depiction of a waning relationship and a life remade will imprint deeply. Don’t take anything for granted.
1 Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Frankly, I wish I’d never read this book (I felt the same way about A Little Life, which I went to recommend to everyone I love), which follows the lives of two couples living in London, attempting to ordinarily conduct their ordinary lives. Melisa, a freelance journalist, and her husband Michael live with their two children in Crystal Palace. She struggles with her newly domestic life and lost fashion ambitions; he bemoans their bereft sex life while conducting prolonged conversations with his receptionist. Damian, a would-be novelist, and his wife Stephanie, try to find a middle ground they can live together on in an increasingly ruptured relationship. They’re all 30-something, somewhat-successful, sort-of-living, slowly-dying.
Thirty pages in I felt like the author was lurking in the corner of my flat, observing my deeply mundane behaviours, shaking her head at any hope I might have for a simple beautiful life. One hundred pages in, I wanted to text my boyfriend and accuse him of cheating on me. By the end, Ordinary People had me curled up into an unremarkable suburban ball, crying into my dirty laundry.
Ordinary People gets under your skin because Evans is remarkable at teasing out the awful boring elements of life: the cigarette hidden in a vase and the dust on the walls and the conversations we’re not quite having. The unfair split in housework, and dreams that die on the page when family becomes the focus, and friends who aren’t friends but merely the pillars of a occupied life. Melisa, arguably the central character, wears motherhood like a shroud, and her stark decline is one of the most striking parts of the book.
Evans uses music to incredible effect (the book comes with a playlist), so that turning the pages on the story is almost like opening one of those birthday cards that tinnily sing to you: John Legend (whose song gave the book its title) lifts off the page like a ghost. Celebrity and political names drop into the plot regularly, rooting the novel in the present, though the descriptions of place and character remain wholly universal. It isn’t easy to write the present into fiction. iPhones feel forced, Brexit is boring, politics pass. There are no original stories (Circe and Briseis know this so well), but the tales written in here and now surely have the best claim of coming close. You can’t rewrite the present, you can only capture it. I consider us caught.
The ending doesn’t quite keep the promise of the beginning, as the narrative begins to creep away from normal into paranormal, and slightly too much narrative is given over to Michael Jackson (the timing of that documentary is hard on this book), but you can’t help but wonder if that isn’t Evan’s point, as her characters churn and burn and wonder why the promise of a life brilliantly lived is passing them by. There are no more butterflies. The dust has settled. And nobody is plotting a climactic ending to your clumsy, arrhythmic story.
If you read for escapism, this isn’t the book for you. But the best writing makes you feel seen. Modern life, with all its dependence on peer-mandated success and performative high-res happiness, has rarely been so accurately rendered as in Ordinary People.
The winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 5 June.
The shortlisted titles are all available at Unity Books.