The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced tonight. I’m hoping for a Kate Atkinson victory but still reeling a little from the thought that I’ll soon have to refer to it as the Baileys Prize. Perhaps I’m being snobby. Let’s be honest – I am being snobby. But it’s hard to equate a thick, sweet liqueur with the very best fiction by women, even if I have enjoyed the odd tipple of it myself many years ago.
It’s been a pretty sobering week’s reading so far with the excellent Meet Me in Gaza on Monday followed by Gabriel Weston’s powerful first novel, Dirty Work. Direct Red was Weston’s remarkably honest and compassionate account of her training in a large London teaching hospital written in elegant clear-eyed yet sometimes poetically beautiful prose. Dirty Work is written in the same quietly striking style. It follows Nancy Mullion, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, as she awaits a tribunal’s verdict on whether she is fit to continue practising surgery after her patient suffers a catastrophic haemorrhage. Nancy’s work is her life. Not much room for anything else when you’ve spent seven years studying intensively, then working all hours and must not only continue to maintain your knowledge but publish new research if you’re to get on. Her suspension gives her the time to reflect that she does not otherwise have. Weston interweaves Nancy’s thoughts about her childhood, her relationships and her career with her fears about the tribunal’s investigation and her part in its procedures. In vivid vignettes we learn that Nancy was a studious little girl whose happiest time was the years she spent in the States. She is a little obsessive, harbouring a yearning for Tom with whom she shared a night of adolescent kissing until her disappointing encounter with him in adulthood. She has a loving and supportive sister. She lives on her own and has few friends. Gradually we learn that Nancy performs abortions.
In the book’s press release, Lionel Shriver is quoted as describing Dirty Work as a ‘brave book’. Indeed it is, and a very necessary one. Readers will no doubt have strong views about abortion but whatever your standpoint Dirty Work will make you think about it again, perhaps in ways you don’t expect. By taking us through Nancy’s thought processes, Weston forces her readers to think not just about the women who undergo abortion, or about the foetuses aborted, but also about the effects upon the doctors who perform the procedure and how the issue is talked about, or perhaps not talked about, by the profession. After giving her readers the opportunity to skip ahead, Weston refuses to spare those who continue the physical details of an abortion, both the actual process and what has to be done to ensure that it has been entirely successful. And we really shouldn’t look away. Those of us who are pro-choice should understand what we expect of those who carry out our wishes and the toll it takes on them. Dirty Work is not a polemical book for either the pro-choice or anti-choice sides of the debate but it is one that brings you face to face with harsh realities.
Somehow it’s hard to envision the Bailey’s tag attached to a book like Dirty Work even though it’s just the sort of novel that would qualify for the prize. Still, as H said to me this morning – rather tartly, I thought – I should be glad that anyone has stepped into the Orange breach given our current straitened times.