4 Jun 2013

Women’s Prize for Fiction: the Channel 4 News verdict

From missing mothers to murder, climate change to the Tudors: this year’s shortlist for what was the Orange Prize for fiction has been described as “staggeringly strong”. Channel 4 News takes a look.

Woman browses in a bookshop (G)

After Madeline Miller bagged last year’s Orange prize for her debut novel, Song of Achilles, the women’s prize for fiction in 2013 is a very different beast.

Two former prize winners are featured on the list, Barbara Kingsolver and Zadie Smith, as well as Hilary Mantel – the first contender for winning the UK’s top three literary awards, and unsurprisingly, favourite to win, if you listen to William Hill.

Kate Atkinson is another established writer, who has been shortlisted for her ninth novel, along with American AM Homes, former writer for the L-word, for her novel May We Be Forgiven. Another darkly funny book, Where’d You Go Bernadette, has put Maria Semple on the coveted list.

Bloomberg’s Hephzibah Anderson commended the shortlist for embracing “themes as varied as global warming, multiculturalism and destiny”, while Jonathan Ruppin, web editor for Foyles, said: “I think the judges have come up with a staggeringly strong shortlist.”

No mean feat, considering that the prize’s original sponsor, Orange, pulled out last year after 17 years of support. The 2013 prize, worth £30,000, has been funded by private donors.

But the international prize for women’s fiction, established as a response to the 1991 all-male Booker prize shortlist, shows no sign of stalling. It has just secured Baileys as its sponsor from next year, and provides a huge commercial boost to winning authors.

Andrea Levy’s Small Island, which won the prize in 2004, sold over 110,000 copies in the six months after winning, and it has catapulated past winners Zadie Smith and Lionel Shriver to smash hit status.

The prize will be announced on Wednesday 5 June at a ceremony at the Southbank Centre, and broadcast live on Channel 4 News. Culture Editor Matthew Cain will also broadcast an interview with the winner. But in the meantime, here is the Channel 4 News verdict on the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson enters Sliding Doors territory in her new novel, imagining the different paths the life of her heroine might have taken if the hazards of chance and happenstance had been different.

By focusing on the main character Ursula’s trajectory from infancy to old age, Atkinson steers us through the events of the first half of the 20th century, with two world wars inevitably looming large.

This means that the story replicates other recent novels placing women in the forefront of the action (some of the scenes of Ursula’s role in the Blitz are reminiscent of Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch). But her depiction of a domestically abusive relationship in the suburbs of the 50s is especially believable and affecting.

3 / 5, by Mark Greaves

Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

The feisty female characters at the centre of Where’d You Go Bernadette make this black comedy laugh-out-loud entertainment.

Bernadette Fox, an anti-social agoraphobic who is considered an elusive genius in the architect world, lives in Seattle with her husband Elgie and super-smart, teenage daughter Bee.

The story of Bee’s search for her mother, who suddenly disappeared, weaves from Seattle to the South Pole and creatively unfolds via a series of letters and emails between school parents, the FBI and a virtual assistant apparently in India.

Author Maria Semple includes plenty of surprises making this a tough book to put down until you finally find the answer to: Where’d you go Bernadette?

4.5 / 5, by Katie Hunter

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

In rural Tennessee a young woman with two small children chafes at her unsatisfying marriage, her unsupportive in-laws, her narrow existence. But when she finds millions of butterflies roosting in the woods behind her home, the discovery changes both her view of the world and her place within it.

As in her previous bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver puts a culture clash at the heart of her story; this time giving voice to poor rural climate change deniers and affluent highly-educated scientists as they all struggle to understand the mystery of the butterflies’ appearance.

Kingsolver handles her material with admirable humanity, explaining rather than damning characters for their lifestyles. But for me, it was the touching portrayal of the central character Dellarobia, as she struggles to make the best of her limited choices to create a better future for herself and her children, that made this book so compelling.

I can’t remember a more affecting depiction of motherhood. A wise, funny and absorbing read.

4 / 5, by Emma Maxwell

May We Be forgiven, by AM Homes

This turbo-charged novel sees murder, adultery and manslaughter take place within the first 50 pages. Where do you go from there?

It might sound like the recipe for a brooding tragedy. But May We Be Forgiven manages to be a very funny, and even uplifting, book that takes a wry look at the modern American dream, in all its medicalised, digitalised glory.

Homes tells the tale of Nixon-obsessed academic, Harry, who is suddenly tasked with bringing up his teenage niece and nephew, when his brother (their father) kills their mother, after finding her in bed with Harry.

Harry charts his freefall into internet date addiction and self-medication with hilarious insight and Homes cuts to the brutal core of the reality of American suburbia, even while the plot at times verges into very surreal territory.

But it is the budding relationship between Harry, his teenage charges and his expanding family, that shines a light through the fragmented fabric of his chaotic new life.

4 / 5, by Meabh Ritchie

Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Like some kind of literary Manchester United sweeping up all the silverware in a particularly good football season, if Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies wins the Women’s Prize for Fiction, she will become the first author to win all three major British book gongs with one novel (it’s already won the Man Booker and the Costa).

But does Bring Up The Bodies deserve all of these accolades? Yes and no. The second installment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy chronicling life close to royalty in Tudor England is a worthy – and in many ways, more accessible – follow-up to Wolf Hall (which won the Man Booker prize in 2009).

It’s a good yarn, gripping and well-told, but at the same time it’s somehow a bit dry. It’s a familiar story, none of the characters is particularly engaging, there are no wider questions asked, and no big emotions stirred. But that might just be me – she’s obviously getting something right.

3 / 5, by Jennifer Rigby

NW, by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s portrait of modern, urban life, through the eyes of four Londoners from the same Kilburn estate, is an uncomfortable portrayal of fear at mundanity, but also the comfort provided by it.

Discomfort runs through the novel, being applied to race, class and gender. The novel fails to settle, jumping from different styles from paragraph to paragraph, which whilst effectively creating the unease appropriate to the novel, can make it difficult to invest in the characters or the plot.

4 / 5, by David Doyle