Women’s Prize 2018 Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

I did it, I finished the Women’s Prize 2018 shortlist!  And a few other books off the longlist that I won’t talk about in this post.  I’m so happy to report that I am in love with this shortlist.  I admittedly was underwhelmed by the longlist, but, with a couple of exceptions, I think this shortlist really is the best of the list overall.  Usually with shortlists there’s at least one book I end up really hating or not clicking with, but that wasn’t the case here: I didn’t rate any of these books lower than 3 stars.  In an ideal world I’d swap out the last book on this list for Elmet by Fiona Mozley, but oh well.

Now, I’m going to go through the list, starting with what I’d least like to see win, making my way up to what I’d most like to see win.  With an awkward mix of US and UK covers because I make my own rules here.

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6. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar.  I actually enjoyed this book more than the one that I’ve given the 5th place slot, but the reason I’m ordering it this way is because I at least understand that book’s inclusion on this shortlist, whereas The Mermaid‘s leaves me a bit baffled.  The prose in this novel is admittedly stunning, and where that alone should be more than enough to elevate it in certain literary prizes, I feel like the Women’s Prize values other attributes more highly.  To put it bluntly: there is nothing even remotely topical about this book that speaks to our social climate or pervasive social attitudes the way the rest of the books on this list do.  This is a nice enough story, and it’s written well, but if that’s enough to win it the prize, I will be confused more than anything.

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5. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.  This book is an important, necessary examination of race relations in contemporary American society, that scrutinizes systemic violence and inter-generational cycles of poverty.  Its numerous accolades are hardly difficult to understand.  However.  While Ward endeavors to play off modern classics – Beloved, As I Lay Dying – her own writing pales in comparison.  In my opinion, there’s not much to recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing over either of those books or over a number of other contemporary African American novels that ruminate on racism and oppression.  I also felt that the magical realism element was an awkward and heavy-handed attempt to drive home this novel’s already abundantly apparent themes.  I would admittedly be disappointed to see this novel win since I already feel its literary merit has been overhyped.  An important book, yes, undoubtedly; but one that I feel lacks the artistry of the rest of this list.

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4. Sight by Jessie Greengrass.  Sight left me conflicted, pondering the question ‘profundity or pretension?’ but at least it stayed on my mind for days after I finished it.  For such a short little novel, it packs a powerful punch, as the narrator reflects on her decision to become a mother, while attempting to reconcile that with the recent death of her own mother.  Commentary on bodily agency, a woman’s role in society, and whether we can truly know other people make this a worthy and thought-provoking read.  It did get a bit overly solipsistic at times – this narrator feels so removed from humanity that you’d think she is the only person to ever become a mother, and it was difficult not to roll my eyes at certain observations that came from such an insular perspective.  But the prose is so strong and the insights occasionally so incisive that I would not be surprised if this ends up taking the prize, and I wouldn’t be upset about it.

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3. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  Deciding on the order for my 2nd and 3rd place titles was a major Sophie’s choice situation.  This is similar to the way I felt about books 5 and 6 – in this case, the book I personally loved more I’m putting 3rd as I believe the next book I’ve selected would be a more deserving winner.  But, The Idiot has my heart.  It’s a bitingly clever, humorous account of a Turkish-American girl’s first year at Harvard, and her feelings of mediocrity as she searches for any kind of recognizable truth in her studies or in her doomed love life.  As it’s this year’s Marmite book, you will either love or hate The Idiot, and you will know which camp you fall into by page 5.  But the kind of absurdity inherent to higher academia that Batuman tapped into really resonated with me, and I think this book is a brilliant commentary on the paradoxical role of language in elucidating and obfuscating.

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2. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie.  A contemporary retelling of Antigone, Home Fire is set in modern London, and follows a cast of all-Muslim characters, highlighting their varied relationships with their own faith.  This is a book that tackles Islamophobia, religious extremism, and national identity, all driven home by a positively heartbreaking and tragic narrative that Shamsie chronicles with elegance.  And, a final note about adaptations and intertextuality and literary references: I put down Sing, Unburied, Sing thinking ‘I should have just re-read Beloved instead,’ but I put down Home Fire and immediately thought ‘I need to re-read Antigone,’ the distinction being that I felt Home Fire really added something to my appreciation of Sophocles’ classic, whereas I felt Sing, Unburied, Sing paled under Morrison’s shadow.  If you’re going to write a novel in conversation with classics, Shamsie shows how it’s done.

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1. When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy.  When I Hit You chronicles one Indian woman’s experience of surviving an abusive marriage, as she writes this book in an attempt to reclaim agency of her life after it’s been slowly stripped away by her controlling husband.  It’s every bit as brutal as you might imagine, but it’s never gratuitous.  Through intelligent prose Kandasamy challenges the reader to become so immersed in this woman’s circumstances the question ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ dies on all of our lips.  This is a cleverly written, politically charged novel which examines a woman’s role in society, which takes an unflinching look at the psychology of those who endure domestic violence, which challenges any ‘feminist’ discourse which places blame upon victims who are unable for whatever reason to escape abusive relationships.

So, in short: I would not be surprised to see any of these win: When I Hit You, Home Fire, Sight, Sing, Unburied, Sing.  I would be surprised but delighted to see The Idiot win.  I would be positively baffled to see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock win.  And I would be happy with any of my top four winning.

**Winner prediction** When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy.  It’s topical, it’s experimental in format, it’s constructed with such skill and artistry that you simply cannot deny its impact.

So, who else read the shortlist this year?  Who’s your winner prediction and who would you like to see win?  What did you think of the shortlist overall?  Come chat with me!

21 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2018 Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

  1. I suppose I can’t comment too much, having not read the others on the list, but I loved When I Hit You for all the reasons you so eloquently described. For what it has to say, and how it goes about saying it, I’d love to see it win a major prize like this.

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    • Yes yes yes! I’d love to see this book go on and get the same kind of exposure and critical reception as The Power has. It has such important things to say and Kandasamy’s writing is so piercing and beautiful. Fingers crossed for it 🤞

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m determined to read The Power in the next couple of months to just get it over and done with. (lol watch as I end up loving it – though as none of my friends have I would be VERY SURPRISED if I did.) Also I feel like the people who most need to read When I Hit You are least likely to pick it up, so I’m really wishing commercial success its way to give people that extra push.

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      • lol, perhaps because your expectations are low, whereas most people went in super hyped, you may be pleasantly surprised?

        So true! I think The Power had commercial appeal in the first place, being dystopian, but When I Hit You stands to gain so much exposure by winning. Knowing it could end up in so many more hands as a result would be amazing.

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      • I never go into a book hoping I’ll hate it but I honestly think I would be kind of embarrassed to love The Power given the reactions I’ve seen by readers I respect 😂 I do have ONE friend who really liked it though so I am prepared to join her camp if I must… WE SHALL SEE.

        Very true, When I Hit You is such a tough book to sell. ‘This is about domestic violence and it is very bleak and depressing, have fun.’ I’m hoping the Women’s Prize and maybe the Man Booker?? will help it succeed!

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      • 😂😂

        Yes, definitely! It’s books like this that benefit most from prizes. I suppose that’s another reason why some people think it’s odd that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is on the shortlist (and why The Power won), as they don’t really need the mainstream promo 🤷🏼‍♂️ Still, it’s all subjective, isn’t it? And that said, I wouldn’t want a book ruled out purely because it’s popular anyway. So maybe I’m just talking rubbish. It is nearly 4am, so it’s likely 😂

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      • It is not nearly that late here and I am perfectly following this train of thought 😂 I have such paradoxical feelings about popularity and literary prizes – like, part of me would be frustrated to see Sing Unburied Sing win as it already won the National Book Award and I think it’s overhyped to begin with, but then I’m also like, shouldn’t the books just be judged on their own merit?? But then again, nothing exists in a bubble, and if literary prizes take into consideration the social climate in which a book is written should they not also consider the book’s critical reception…?? I really have no clue. This is why I would be a bad judge.

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      • I’m glad it’s not just me who overthinks it. Ideally, I know that commercial popularity, or lack of, shouldn’t influence the decision as to what wins awards, but then part of me can’t help but feel like an opportunity has been missed when something super mainstream wins 🤷🏼‍♂️

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      • Absolutely agreed. My Higher Self knows that commercial popularity should absolutely not be taken into consideration, but in reality it always bums me out and feels super anticlimactic when a bestseller wins. 🤷🏻‍♀️ #teamkandasamy

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  2. This is so cool! I love that I’m so much more familiar with the Women’s Prize list this year (thanks to you!), whereas this time last year I hadn’t even heard of it. I’m really curious to see who’s going to win! I’ve been wanting to read When I Hit You but sadly my library doesn’t have it and won’t get it for some reason (apparently their vendor doesn’t stock it???). And NYU’s copy is lost?? So I’m going to resort to Interlibrary Loan or something because I really want to read it!

    I went on Amazon the other day and read the first page of The Idiot and something about it was compelling but I’m afraid to start it and end up DNFing it lmao.

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    • I had a lot of fun doing this!!! I’ve been getting more into literary prizes in general over the last year or so – I just think it’s fun hearing a bunch of people’s hot takes on the same group of books, and seeing how much opinions differ.

      Omg DANG I should have brought my copy to lend you! (I also should have returned your copy of The Obelisk Gate dsjlkfdjs)

      Omg how hysterical would it be if you ended up liking The Idiot after I specifically called you out in my review as someone who would hate it djsklfdsj I mean there’s no harm in DNFing if you get tired of it, it’s kind of… more of the same for 400 pages, but it kept me engaged the entire time for whatever reason.

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  3. I agree that The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is unlikely to win, but I’m surprised that you don’t see any topicality in it. The extent to which money (and, more than money, credit) makes or breaks Angelica’s ability to live, particularly as a woman, struck me as very contemporary! Plus the whole purpose of a courtesan – to charm and entertain while also being a shrewd businesswoman – is basically a display of uber-feminised behaviour, and it’s very interesting to see the ways in which Regency expectations of women who have a presence in the world dovetail with modern (though perhaps unspoken) expectations of women in high-powered, high-visibility industries. (There’s also the subplot with the mixed-race woman at Madame Chappell’s, although Gowar doesn’t really follow through on that in any meaningful way.)

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    • All good points – admittedly I wrote this post 1 minute after finishing the book and didn’t spend a whole lot of time reflecting on it. I think I would have done better to say: it’s not that there aren’t topical elements, but Gowar’s examination of these issues to me felt paper thin. I didn’t get anything out of Polly’s story other than ‘life was awful for black women’ and not much more out of Angelica’s than ‘life was awful for women who had to put up with societal double standards working against them at every turn’ and while of course I think these are important and necessary themes to explore, I felt that Gowar never really dug deeper than the surface.

      Though you make a good point about the parallels between Regency women and working women today. Maybe I’m not giving Gowar enough credit. To me this book just kind of felt like it was hovering on the precipice of insight and never quite getting there.

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      • Very fair! If I’d been in the mood specifically for an atmospheric read I would have undoubtedly adored it. Alas.

        Also – thoughts on Home Fire winning? I remember you saying ages ago that’s what the shadow panel predicted.

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  4. I am so interested to see who wins. Very cool that you managed to read all the shortlisted books before the announcement later today!
    I really need to get to When I Hit You. But I have been reading a string of very depressing books and can’t stomach any more at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had to push myself through The Mermaid. That book was not meant to be read mostly in one sitting and it destroyed my soul a little but I DID IT.

      When I Hit You is phenomenal but definitely not to be read until you’re in a strong place emotionally.

      Liked by 1 person

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