Stack of books

As has become tradition at TOAST, it’s the time of year when I review the Women’s Prize shortlist. Reading these six books at three months postpartum has meant middle-of-the-night audiobooks, tales that kept me company in GP waiting rooms, and stories that have felt like secrets. It’s a strong list this year, so let’s dive in.

There was only one book that wasn’t my cup of tea Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville. Set at the turn of the twentieth century in Australia, the book is based on the life of the author’s grandmother, Dolly, a headstrong girl longing to leave the family farm. She wants to get a job, but her father won’t hear of it. The book is particularly successful at painting swooping images of scene and character — “during endless afternoons the great unfriendly eye of the sun seemed stuck in the same quadrant of sky, as if it had no intention of ever sliding down towards the horizon” — but I would have preferred more pause over scene-hopping, covering less ground in more depth.

Next up, The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright. I preferred this to her last Women’s Prize shortlisted title, The Green Road, although I enjoyed that, too. Enright is a brilliant writer of families, and in The Wren, The Wren we follow mother, Carmel, and daughter, Nell, across parallel narratives of girlhood.

“Carmel likes to be asked about herself. She doesn’t really answer — her life is just a life, it’s a kind of annoyance to her. But in the bad old days, when I was a teenager and we were hammer and tongs, she would sit and stare for about an hour and then she might say, very quietly: I exist too, you know. (Fair point).”

Carmel and Nell spend a lot of time trying to work out what the other wants, as though each is a text they need to dissect. However, it’s Carmel’s father that the world immortalises and analyses, lacking interest in the women’s stories. Her father was a famous poet who wrote about nature and (abstractly) fatherhood, though he was notably absent for the latter. His fictional poetry punctuates the novel, giving him, Phil, the space to express himself in a way only someone who has shirked their responsibilities could. Aren’t Carmel and Nell lucky, people keep telling them, to grow up in this man’s literary shadow, so much so that Carmel feels she “was a painting by a man she could not remember... Her father was. Right there. Her father bigger than the world and a lot less wonderful.” With references to poetry, social media and memory, this book asks us if we’re really looking at someone’s life, or a photograph of it, or a portrait of that photograph. How far removed are we as an observer, as a reader? It’s meta and cutting.

Brotherless Night by V. V. Ganeshananthan is an ambitious novel set across the Sri Lankan civil war. Sashi lives in Jaffna and wants to be a doctor, a healing that she wishes for her family. As she learns to dissect bodies in the lab she also, against her will, learns what it’s like to dissect the history of the place you call home. She finds herself in the middle of a war with grief at every turn and asks how it’s possible to track causal events when it’s your everyday life. Brotherless Night expertly and complexly balances narrative, research and information as Sashi “nurses her worry like another patient.”

Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy was a bizarre but brilliant book to be reading at this point in my life. A funny, stressful, claw-grabbing novel about early motherhood. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simone Collins, and in the darkness of 3am, it felt as though the narrator was living inside my head. I felt every sentence with her, laughing when her toddler defiantly pulled off socks just as quickly as she could put them on: “I gave up on the socks and looked at you. How committed you were to being a baby.” I choked up when she let slip that she “loved that dishwasher. It was the only one that helped me.” And when her husband abandoned her in IKEA because he was embarrassed by their toddler’s meltdown? Well, I wanted to storm into the book and have stern words. I loved this novel and also felt confronted by it — the mark of a great read.

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad is one of my most anticipated books of the year. Set in Palestine, actress Sonia Nasir joins a production of Hamlet in the West Bank. The rehearsal scenes are set out like a play, and whilst this could feel gimmicky, I think it works well. The cast is asked to draw upon traumatic memories to help them get to grips with their characters, and they discuss how Hamlet might be adapted to embody a Palestinian story. At the same time, Sonia learns that she hasn’t always been told the truth about her family history. This sharp novel weaves together these elements to explore how stories are passed on, who censors them, which narratives are upheld, presented and represented — the translations of truth, occupation, and history. It’s a pertinent and important novel.

My favourite book from this year’s shortlist is River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure. This split narrative novel follows Alva, a teenager in Shanghai in 2007 who idolises American culture, and her stepfather Lu Fang — we track his life decades earlier in Qingdao. Alva has a secret life online; her mother’s past could be a fiction; Lu Fang has his own hauntings, too. The characters hide behind different versions of themselves, projecting images of wealth, or class, or whiteness. There are many conversations to be had between this book, The Wren, The Wren and Enter Ghost when it comes to performance and reality; how one searches for, and then holds onto, truth.

Sometimes when I read a book I adore, I find I don’t have a huge amount to say about it, which isn’t always helpful when it comes to articulating why other people should give it a go. Perhaps this is because books like River East, River West leave me with a feeling, rather than a string of analytical thoughts — although it was extremely thought-provoking. Perhaps it’s because I need to sit with it quietly for a while. I will say I cried twice when reading it and that the characters felt impossibly real. I will say I actually hugged the book when I closed it. I would love to see it win this year’s prize — but it’s got strong competition.

Have you read any of this year’s Women’s Prize books? Let us know in a comment below before midnight (BST) Wednesday 12th June for the chance to win a copy of this year’s six shortlisted titles. The giveaway winner will be selected at random, and we will email you if you are successful. Good luck!

The winner of theWomen’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Thu 13th June.

Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.

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