Women’s Prize for Fiction – Reviews

  • Post Category:English

Over the last few weeks, various members of the English Department have been reading the shortlisted novels for the fabulous Women’s Prize for Fiction, which has been running for 25 years now.

An incredibly diverse range of texts made for fascinating discussion at our Department Book Club and we would love to hear from parents who may have also read some of the shortlisted pieces.

Without further ado though, please find reviews below, starting with the winner who, hot off the press, was announced last night in a ceremony in London you can view here: https://youtu.be/wIotiSh12y8

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
In Ozeki’s polyphonic novel, the central plot revolves around Benny, a thirteen-year-old Japanese-American boy reeling from the recent tragic death of his father, a disappointed jazz musician. Another of the novel’s voices is Annabelle, Benny’s mother, also struggling with grief and has slipped into a hoarding habit. Their small house is so crammed with the print media she receives for her work as a news analyst (working from home!), they must form channels through the stacks of papers, to move from room to room. Soon Benny starts to hear voices in everyday objects, his shoes, the kettle, a lettuce; sometimes they’re calming but more often they castigate him.

Occasional spells in a psychiatric unit follow where Benny makes a friend, The Aleph. The Aleph is a street artist with her own demons (and a non-binary pet ferret) but she introduces Benny to a cast of eccentrics, one of them a homeless philosopher poet from Sarajevo. Another, a radical climate change activist living on the margins.

As Hamlet said, ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions’, and so it is for Benny and Annabelle. At school Benny is isolated, the butt of jokes, and Annabelle, already facing job insecurity, loses her livelihood and faces the threat of eviction. Benny takes refuge in the public library where the voices are more soothing and Annabelle, alone and friendless must fight with very little in her armoury.

This is a multi-layered, slow-burn story. Ozeki weaves a range of topical issues including grief, mental health, the working poor, climate change and consumerism. It’s a coming-of-age story with brief flights into magic realism and jazz (Benny’s dad was a jazz clarinettist) and one of the voices in the novel is ‘The Book’. It’s ‘The Book’ and some unlikely friendships that help Annabelle and Benny resurface. It’s a complex story of human vulnerability but is surprisingly hopeful and full of warmth, intelligence and humour – a worthy winner!
Mrs McMahon

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
A sinking ship; a pioneering aviator; a troubled Hollywood starlet: this ambitious novel plots parallel arcs around the world and across time. The story centres on Marian Graves, a fictional character inspired by real-life female aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson – along with a vast array of lesser-known female aviators who took great risks in the early Twentieth Century, including in the transport of war planes during World War Two.

As a fan of a dual narrative structure, I enjoyed shifts between the third person narrative of Marian Graves and the first-person narrative of modern-day Hollywood actress, Hadley Baxter. Following a fall from grace, Hadley is cast to play Marian in a film about her great ambition, to fly a great circle around the earth. Both protagonists pushed the boundaries of their different eras; it is Marian’s story that fascinated me the most, as her unconventional and emotionally-damaging upbringing leads a life that is equally unconventional.

While the mysterious vanishing of Marian’s plane drives the plot, it is the powerful portrayal of her challenging romantic relationships with Caleb, Barclay and Ruth which resonate with the reader long after the novel’s denouement. ‘The Great Circle’ is suitable for Senior Girls and adults; it offers a vivid picture of a bygone age, while championing the right to individuality which resonates with readers of today.
Miss Grant

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
By turns macabre and hilarious, ultimately The Sentence is about the healing power of books and proves its own point perfectly. In this wickedly comic Gothic story, we follow Tookie, a Native American who is rebuilding her life after a prison sentence.

Set between All Hallows Eve 2019 and All Hallows Eve 2020, a defining year where both Covid and George Floyd would rock the very foundations of Minneapolis life – and the world – it appears it is not too soon for us to take a close look at the events which seemed to rip apart the all too comfortable fabric of society at that time. The novel’s immediacy is confronting.

Erdrich uses a first-person narrative for Tookie, a Chippewa in her 40s who describes herself as ‘an ugly woman’ but ‘striking in a Hellgirl way,’ to create an intimate connection with this stalwart figure who seems to make endless mistakes. Once readers have recovered from the outlandish beginning, which sees our heroine being arrested for moving the dead body of a girlfriend’s lover, the story settles down to its purpose: a study of how we deal with pain fear, illness and injustice.

My favourite parts revolve around Tookie’s relationship; she and Pollux are soul mates, their loving, laughter-filled marriage are one of the great delights of this book. The insight into American indigenous culture was also welcome, with readers given an intimate portrayal of the culture’s customs, food, music – and survival – in 21st Century America.
Mrs Lord

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak
This is an interesting and unusual novel, set in Cyprus and England and spanning forty years. It focuses on the story of Kostas and Defne, separated by both nationality and religion in 1974 Cyprus, and on their 16-year-old daughter Ada in London in the 2010s, and moves back and forth between the two time periods. There are many elements of this novel that I enjoyed: the intergenerational storyline, the descriptions of Cyprus, and it also taught me a lot about the history of the island and the civil war.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of a fig tree, which is intriguing as it allows the narrator to stand back and take a broader look at human activity over time. However, there were times when I felt there was an overreliance on coincidence, and the tree itself sometimes felt a bit too much like a plot device being used to fill holes. I did enjoy the novel, and the trans-generational trauma implications surely rings true to particularly emotive historical events. It deals with love and trauma, and has a clever ending which packs an emotive punch.
Mrs Barrett-Jolley

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen Agostini
This is a raw, brutally honest account of a woman’s struggle in present day Trinidad. Alethea is feisty, independent and assertive, yet behind closed doors she’s the victim of domestic abuse. She represses her fears and survives on her wits until she witnesses a violent incident, which forces her to confront her present and reshape her future. It’s written in the first person, largely in Alethea’s lulling, lyrical Trinidadian creole, and whilst she suffers, her perspective is shot through with wit and wry humour. The reader quickly aligns with her, willing her to survive and thrive.

A story of intergenerational trauma, rigid gender expectations and colourism in post-colonial society, it’s also rich and vivid in its evocative descriptions of the picturesque tropical landscape and Trinidadian culture, especially the food and the music. Not for the faint-hearted, The Bread the Devil Knead is confronting in its graphic, matter-of-fact depictions of Alethea’s suffering. For this reason, I’d recommend it for older readers, though it’s not all bleak – it’s also joyful and full of hope.
Mrs McMahon

For further information, visit: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/2022-prize