“Really More Of A Magician”: The Women’s Prize, 2021

I have tended, in the past, to review literary awards shortlists before their winner is announced. In this, as in so many other things, I suppose I am disappointingly conventional: joining in the game of guessing the victorious volume is part of the generally accepted point of shortlists, which encourage us after all to buy six novels where we might otherwise only buy one. This is the way it’s done: read the shortlist, pick a winner, explain your reasoning. Then rage at the jury who choose otherwise (and therefore unwisely).

Fortunately I – and you – have been spared that spectacle this year, at least when it comes to the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Mostly because I simply didn’t manage to read the whole shortlist before the announcement of the winner on September 8th (about which more anon), I’m left offering this somewhat redundant post-match analysis. Except – and here you’ll forgive me for rationalising my own failures – reading the shortlist from this perspective is probably more instructive than doing so in the usual way: it guides the reader towards not bemoaning the jury’s selection but seeking to understand it.

In fairness, the Women’s Prize jury for 2021 picked what for me was the right book – in other words, we agree, and so I don’t need to work their decision backwards in order to parse it. I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi some months ago, and Facebooked briefly about it at the time. As I began to read the shortlist – starting with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and continuing on to Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This – I began to suspect that my love for this novel was not about to be supplanted by any other volume on the shortlist. It turned out I was right: I completed my reading of the shortlist well after the announcement (I came to Claire Fuller’s Unsettled Ground last of all), and none of the five other books struck me as better.

What is odd about this in the context of the Women’s Prize, however, is that Piranesi is very much the shortlist’s odd-one-out. Each of its other five books are quotidian and granular: they focus on the everyday lives of a relatively narrow set of characters, lingering over the details of how they live them. In Cherie Jones’s How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, for example, we are treated to pungent descriptions of its Barbadian milieu: “The beach stinks of stewing moss, sargassum seaweed and the putrefying guts of beached fishes, rotting in the warming air” (p. 139). In Unsettled Ground, Fuller’s no less degraded English countryside is similar picked over, in a sort of sub-folk horror mode that reminds one of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet: “The sun turns the tomatoes a deep red, searching the skins until they split, while its heat dries out the cottage thatch and drives the mice and insects further in” (p. 263).

This recurrently lyrical focus on the rather ugly features of their characters’ daily routines lends the five losing books on the shortlist the air of a shared approach, a similar mode. This will be a familiar style to many, since creative writing classes often emphasise the important of an accumulation of detail in achieving a sense of versimilitude. According to this orthodoxy, lists lend authenticity. Here’s a passage from The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (MFA, University of Michigan), the story of two twins and their daughters who must negotiate the racial politics of the second half of the USA’s twentieth century:

The winter she saw Jude Winston again, Kennedy starred in an off-off-Broadway musical called Silent River. She played Cora, the sheriff’s rebellious daughter who longs to run away with a rugged farmhand. For months, she obsessed, more than normal, about getting sick. She drank so much hot tea with lemon that by February she could barely stand the smell of it and pinched her nose, gagging it down. She swallowed chalky zinc pills and triple-wrapped her neck in a scarf before stepping outside. She scrubbed her hands furiously after she climbed off the subway. She wasn’t build for a New York winter under any circumstances; landing her biggest role since she’d moved to the city certainly fit the bill of extraordinary. (p. 294)

None of this is important to the main plot, except the final – in context, rather pathetically phrased – note that the role is Kennedy’s biggest to date. The Vanishing Half piles incident and information up in this way to create a sense of reality which ultimately it doesn’t quite know what to do with. At times – for example, its scenes set in an arid sixties suburbia familiar to readers from the first seasons of Mad Men – the details work to create atmosphere. In others – and 1980s New York is one of them – they simply … exist. Increasingly, The Vanishing Half lacks follow-through. It proves to be all set-up, all scenery.

This is a fault not limited to Bennett. I mentioned that my progress through the shortlist was slow, and unfortunately the book I stumbled most on was the fifth I read, Jones’s. Like Bennett’s, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House seeks to be a multi-generational family epic; but these are hard to do well, and sweep can sometimes come at the expense of nuance. Lists are no replacement for avoiding cliche. Where Bennett ticks all the boxes of a received vision of post-war America, Jones at least gives us a vision of Barbados which deliberately sets itself against the common-in-the-West positioning of it as a joyful paradise. The novel derives its title from a tale told to its protagonist, Lala, bu her grandmother, Wilma, in which a curious girl loses her arm to a monster living in the hole into which she thrusts her limb; Jones tells us to watch where we put ourselves. But it doesn’t feel to me that she achieves this as well for Barbados as for example Tsitsi Dangarembga achieved it for Zimbabwe: How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House lacks the cross-currents of the latter’s This Mournable Body, and the reader misses that ambivalence. The novel closes with the contrast of a police car – a prison on wheels, a moving cell – and a aeroplane – movement, freedom, escape. For all the novel’s detail and sense of place, that still feels a contrast too pat to sustain itself.

Patness is a fault also found elsewhere in the shortlist’s quintet of runners-up. Patricia Lockwood is a poet and critic I’ve come to rely on, especially in her pieces for the LRB (her 2019 review of Updike was in particular resplendent). But in No One Is Talking About This, her debut novel – which pushes the list approach to a calculated breaking point, eschewing traditional narrative in favour of a constant barrage of bite-size vignettes and reflections – she ultimately falls into an unfair and unproductive bifurcation not dissimilar from Jones’s. M’learned friend Adam Roberts has sought ingeniously to spring Lockwood out of this trap she has set herself, arguing that her novel adopts a deliberate “two-ply” structure to introduce precisely the countervailing tendencies I argue above are missing in the Jones. I think this is an overly generous reading of a novel which, in its first part, skewers Twitter (what Lockwood calls the “portal”) for its emptiness and immaturity, following its protagonist in her successful but ultimately pointless manipulation of, and celebrity within, this atomising algorithms – and in the second hits the rather mawkish breaks when a very sick baby is born to her entirely innocent and rather decent sister. Her intent here is entirely obvious, and – alas and again – rather bathetic: “No vehicle ever invented for the transmission of information – not the portal, not broadcast radio, not the printed word itself – was as quick, complete, or crackling as the blue kiosk ball that the baby kept tucked against her chin as she slept, her small mouth open to say oh my answers” (p. 179).

That said, Lockwood writes beautifully. If her aphoristic style – all short, summative sentences, whip-smart references and hipster ennui – doesn’t quite nail the psychological experience of living in an information age with the same totality as something like Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, I’m not sure that is either quite its aim. Despite its ultimately unconvincing – because overly loaded – juxtapositions, I think No One Is Talking About This is the work of a great prose stylist who has yet to find the appropriate mode or subject. Indeed, I enjoyed Transcendent Kingdom far more in terms of its rather better balanced story – even if structurally and on the sentence level Yaa Gyasi cannot yet quite match Lockwood’s verve. The story of a Stanford biology grad student whose Ghanaian mother’s deteriorating health means she must learn once again to share her life, the novel reminds one a little of Brandon Taylor’s Real Life – another recent laboratory-bound story of coming to terms with one’s past, and with the structural racism of one’s host society. But it has more charm, and more hope, than Taylor’s novel (though perhaps neither of these things are warranted or desirable). In particular, though, I found its exploration of the place of Christianity in modern society fascinating: the novel ends with the protagonist gazing on Christ’s ecstatic face, and in examining the pressures she feels both to hide her faith and accept its failings, the novel offers a subtle treatment of a theme that is not often explored with this kind of sensitivity and insight.

Transcendent Kingdom boasts a genuinely unique flavour, then, that its competitors, for all their superficial differences, could occasionally lack – although its ending is rushed and its prose itself is usually more transparent than it is characterful. On balance, it belongs in the top tier of the shortlist alongside Piranesi and for me what is the shortlist’s sleeper hit – Fuller’s Unsettled Ground. It’s not that this novel is surprising or revelatory, transformational or even shocking (of its several plot twists, I was surprised by only one); it is simply that it is extremely well tooled. It’s a professional job, is Unsettled Ground. It is also quietly bold: in order for the novel to work, Fuller must ensure that its protagonists – two fifty-one year old twins who have lived their whole life in an isolated cottage with their apparently hermit-like mother – have our sympathies; but she insists upon their oddness, and in many ways the reader cannot engage with them. Julius and Jeanie are stiff and forbidding, frustrating and forlorn; their absence from society has rendered them unable to participate properly in it, but driven them towards often harshly partial judgements. In its quiet weirdness, it reminded me of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, tracking as it does the unsightly underbelly of the English pastoral. Had the shortlist been rounded out by a sixth quotidian novel seeking to immerse its reader in telling detail, Unsettled Ground may well have been my pick of the pack.

But instead – and I’m not sure why or how – the jury topped off its half-dozen contenders with Piranesi, a novel which so entirely eschews the quotidian as to punch right through to it. In other words, this depiction of a man who lives in a huge, ruined and possibly endless neoclassical country house, who spends his days inspecting statues and avoiding floods, captures in its neat evocation of ontological disorientation precisely the feeling of living in a period of dislocating change, in which all that is solid melts into not just the air but the ephemeral ether. As the novel’s protagonist undertakes the tasks given him by the Other, the reader cannot fail to ask hurriedly: where is this? Another planet, an apocalyptic future? An experimental lab of some sort, a parallel universe? Purgatory? The answer is none of these – Clarke offers something genuinely new, and she does so by expertly walking the line between realism and fantasy that David Mitchell has of late been routinely tripping over: when, as in all the shortlist’s other novels, Piranesi‘s mysteries and questions begin to break down into something clearer and more resolvable, there is no sense of let-down, no sense that the set-up has not been worth the pay-off. Piranesi holds the attention to the last.

Why? I think because it is a distillation. I was not a fan of Clarke’s previous novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which though popular with SFF fans and even general readers – it was dramatised by the BBC, no less – felt to me of a mid-2000s piece with novels such as The Crimson Petal and the White, mistaking mere girth for seriousness or world-building. What’s so fascinating about Piranesi‘s relationship with he other novels on this shortlist is that it has no interest – despite what might have been the understandable expectations of Clarke’s readers – in the accrual of detail as an end in itself. Instead, it contains so much history and philosophy and art and metaphysics but also reads like a dream. It is no portmanteau of ideas – it is, like the house in which the protagonist finds himself, a singular construction that is entirely itself whilst also suggestive of much more besides. This is a – perhaps the – singular artistic achievement. As I suspected, the other books didn’t stand a chance.

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