This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.
What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
I’m not one for dystopian fiction but Body Tourists caught my eye because of its author. I’ve enjoyed several of Jane Rogers’ novels, including her last one, Conrad and Eleanor, which neatly reversed gender roles in the story of a long marriage. Her new novel is set in a near future where scientists have developed a way of transferring the memories of the dead into the brains of fit young people.
In 2045, Gudrun is giving an account of her nephew’s research and its consequences, research funded by her from her private Caribbean island. Intellectually sharp but lacking in empathy, Luke’s more interested in science than wealth but Gudrun sees an opportunity for money to be made. The massive northern estates set up to house the unemployed – jobless thanks to the advent of bots – are stuffed with the impoverished. Most are drugged by virtual reality but there are young people looking for a way out, prepared to ‘volunteer’ for medical research for a hefty fee. All they need to do is give up their bodies for two weeks, a fortnight which they will spend unconscious. Ryan jumps at the chance, persuading his girlfriend to volunteer with him but while Paula’s body plays host to a woman who leaves her a grateful note, Ryan’s fails to return. Paula is appalled. Swallowing Luke’s explanation and gagged by a confidentiality agreement, she turns her back on what’s happened but soon Luke is asking for more volunteers and Paula needs the money. Eventually, tragedy strikes and Body Tourism is blown apart.
This is such a clever idea, depicting a world where death is the last frontier the rich have failed to overcome until Luke unveils his research to his avaricious aunt, safely ensconced in her tax haven. Rogers explores her theme from a variety of perspectives, narrating her novel through several different voices. Paula is the host lured by the promise of a better life but whose conscience is deeply troubled. Richard is the ageing rock star, eager to pay to show his doubting deceased father his success but getting more than he bargained for. Elsa, whose partner died in a terrorist attack, has the only positive experience in the single instance where the rich are not involved. It’s chillingly believable, even down to Gudrun’s cynical conclusion. I can’t say that I’m a convert to dystopian fiction but if, like me, you tend to shy away from it, this one’s well worth considering.
Sceptre: London 2019 9781529392951 240 pages Hardback
Back from Portugal – more of which next week – with part two of November’s preview which has its feet firmly placed in Europe with one novel set in Norway, two in Germany, one in France and two in the UK. Let’s work our way south, starting in a remote small town in northern Norway where a single mother has forgotten her young son’s birthday. Hanne Orstavik’s Love follows the separate journeys of Jon, as he sets off to sell lottery tickets for his sports club, and Vibeke, who heads off to the local library and a fairground, in what the publishers are calling ‘an acknowledged masterpiece of Norwegian literature’, and they’re quite right. Gorgeous jacket, too. Review to follow.
Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s The God Childtakes us to Germany where Taiye Selasi Maya grows up aware of her parents’ difference. One Christmas her cousin arrives, spinning stories about Ghana, colonialism and its fallout, awakening Maya to the reasons why her parents might be the way they are. When, as a young woman, Maya is reunited with her cousin in Ghana, she finds him troubled. ‘Her homecoming will set off an exorcism of their family and country’s strangest, darkest demons. It is in this destruction’s wake that Maya realises her own purpose: to tell the story of her mother, her cousin, their land and their loss, on her own terms, in her own voice’ say the publishers of what they’re calling ‘a brave reinvention of the immigrant narrative’ which sounds right up my alley.
We’re staying in Germany for Amanda Lee Koe’s Delayed Rays of a Star in which a photographer captures Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl in a single photograph at a Berlin party in 1928. Koe’s novel follows the three women through their careers and private lives. ‘In the murky world these women navigate, their choices will be held up to the test of time. And the real question is, how much has anything changed? This fierce and exquisite debut about womanhood, ambition, and art, played out against the shifting political tides of the twentieth century, introduces a mesmerizing new literary talent for our times’ according to the publishers which sounds very tempting to me.
Heading across the border to France for Marie NDiaye’s The Cheffe about the daughter of a poor family in Sainte-Bazeille who displays a remarkable talent for cooking when she grows up, even dreaming in recipes. An acknowledged genius in the kitchen, the Cheffe is intensely private, refusing to reveal the name of her daughter’s father when she gives birth. Despite the sucess of her restaurant, her relationship with her daughter becomes so fraught it threatens to destroy her career, apparently. I have a weakness for novels set in restaurants and about food hence the appeal of this one.
Off to London for Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists set in a small private clinic. The bodies of the teenage poor are being used to rejuvenate the old and rich willing to pay the price. ‘It’s an opportunity for wrongs to be righted, for fathers to meet grandsons, for scientists to see their work completed. Old wine in new bottles’ according to the publishers. Not entirely convinced about this one. I usually avoid dystopian fiction but Jane Rogers is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, not least her last novel, Conrad and Eleanor back in 2016.
I’m finishing this second part of November’s preview with Scarlett Thomas’ welcome return to adult fiction, Oligarchy, set in an English boarding school where the daughter of a Russian oligarch is finding it hard to fit in. Then her friend disappears plunging her into a dark world. It seems a very long time since The Seed Collectors so hopes are high for what the publishers are calling a ‘fierce new novel about power, privilege and peer pressure’.
That’s it for November’s new titles. A click on any that take your fancy will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first batch, it’s here. Paperbacks soon…