Saturday, 1 June 2013

Thoughts on the 'Orange' Prize, #2

We return to the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 shortlist with my thoughts on the final three novels, my rankings, my winner, and my prediction for the actual winner.

4. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Starting with an easy one; I have already written up most of my thoughts on this novel, and its companion, Wolf Hall, here. The only thing I would like to add, as I consider the shortlist, is that (in contrast to all the book prize juries in Britain) I think that, excellent as this novel is, it would be an odd choice as winner. I say this because, as detailed in my earlier post, I feel as if it has somewhat of a parasitic relationship with its prequel, sucking the life out of that novel to rise to the heights that it easily achieves. If I could consider the two novels as a whole - or, better still, the entire trilogy - I would feel more confident in awarding them accolades, but as it is, I feel a little uncomfortable pitting a book that benefits so heavily from having a whole book's worth of exposition to set it up against five other novels that haven't had that privilege. Having said that, I will try to rank it as fairly as possible.

5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: After the strength of the shortlist so far, and this novel's fascinating premise, this must be one of the most disappointing and frustrating reading experiences I've had for a long time. I've had mixed experiences with Kate Atkinson in the past. I'm not a fan of her Jackson Brodie novels, which I feel are not written well enough to be literary, nor tautly enough to be engaging crime thrillers, but I loved Behind the Scenes at the Museum when I read it as a undergraduate. This novel sounded much more like Behind the Scenes than quirky Scottish detective, so I was looking forward to reading it - and I also adore novels that play with time, the what might have beens, missed opportunities and variations on a theme. Unfortunately, I think I'm beginning to realise that it's often the novels that seem most perfect for one's reading tastes that become the biggest disappointments. 

One major problem I had with Life After Life is that I felt it squandered its central idea. The novel opens, memorably, with Ursula killing Hitler; although I admit I winced a bit at such a cliched scene and at the equally naive idea that killing Hitler would certainly have halted the Second World War (might not another Hitler have arisen?) However, I was willing to cut Atkinson some slack on these points, as it seemed likely that Ursula herself might have been convinced that this was a sensible and effective plan. What this scene implied to me, though, was that in Groundhog Day style, Ursula would be aware of reliving her life over and over again and be able to consciously take control and calculate what she might be able to do to make the biggest difference, to herself and to the world. This is a fascinating and rich premise. Instead, Atkinson goes for something that I don't think is nearly as rewarding; Ursula is largely unaware of her parallel lives, although she is plagued by an odd sense of deja vu and occasionally takes action to avert particular disasters while not really understanding why she is doing it. This narrative choice robs the novel of much of its philosophical weight, but, more importantly, destroys Ursula's agency. She becomes a puppet of circumstance rather than the dedicated murderer of Hitler that she appeared to be in the opening scene, and although, in the end, Ursula does plan to kill Hitler, her calculations are limited by being driven by instinct, not by actual knowledge.

Following on from this point, I was incredibly disappointed by Ursula's characterisation. For much of the novel, she appears to be a stubborn cipher, and I felt on more than one occasion that I would rather have been reading about her sister, Pamela, who seemed like a much more interesting individual. Other reviewers have speculated that it is difficult to get a handle on Ursula because she is constantly shifting in response to different sets of life events, but I felt quite the opposite - Ursula's behaviour changes as she runs the gamut from battered wife to liberated lover, but her essential core remains the same. I think this is a cop-out, and raises the question as to what the point of her repeating lives is. If we learn nothing, and neither does Ursula, the novel seems reduced to a clever game where different aspects of certain scenarios, such as a bomb exploding in the Blitz, are shuffled around and we have to try and spot the difference, plus the morbid fascination of anticipating how and when Ursula will next be killed. This hardly seems sufficient for something that is presumably meant to be literary fiction.

Finally, I found myself experiencing deja vu as I read this novel, and not in a good way. I am so tired of reading hackneyed descriptions of the two World Wars. Margaret Forster's Diary of an Ordinary Woman covers most of this ground, and Ursula's experiences working as a warden in the London Blitz are totally outclassed by Sarah Waters's depiction of ambulance driving in The Night Watch - a novel which also plays with time, but much more successfully. Even Ursula's time in Germany has been covered by Rachel Johnson's (awful) Winter Games. The book is also poorly, and simplistically, written, much more like the Jackson Brodie novels than Behind the Scenes.

(You may be getting some idea of which novels I'm not backing for this prize...)

6. NW by Zadie Smith: I'm not usually a fan of Zadie Smith (I didn't think much of On Beauty or her collection of essays, Changing My Mind, either) so this book came as a surprise. NW, in my opinion, is everything that White Teeth should have been - sharply observational, genuinely funny, perceptive on the interlocking system of inequalities that form from class, race and gender, and incredibly evocative of the small corner of London in which it is set. Because it's free of the stereotypes, caricatures, and laboured farce that I felt marred her earlier work, it's a much more engaging read, with a cast of fully-rounded characters who each get a chance to tell their own story in their own style (I was particularly fond of the long Natalie Blake section, which told the story of a very individual girl but also said a lot about selfhood and identity). As this suggests, Smith extends her range stylistically in this novel as well, and her experiments with words worked much better for me than they've ever done before, recalling Ali Smith's excellent Hotel World or There But For The. A worthy addition to the shortlist - and, again, one that I wouldn't have read otherwise.

While much of this may not come as a surprise having read this series of mini-reviews, my final order for the shortlist is:

1. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
2. Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
3. NW by Zadie Smith
4. May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes
5. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
6. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In some ways this was a difficult choice to make, especially as any of the top four would have been worthy winners. I managed to decide between the Kingsolver and the Mantel by considering Bring Up The Bodies as a sequel that partly builds upon the success of the first book, whereas Flight Behaviour is a stand-alone triumph, although of course this doesn't diminish the quality of Mantel's work. The Smith and the Homes were both so wonderful in different ways that I found it equally difficult to decide which should come third or fourth, so I ended up choosing through somewhat unorthodox considerations; remembering that both books feature scenes of people arranging sexual encounters over the internet, I decided that Smith's hilarious and horribly awkward version trumped Homes's bizarre depiction, and that this honesty was a quality that NW possessed throughout and that May We Be Forgiven lacked in places. Probably best I'm not actually an Orange Prize judge... Ranking the last two novels, in contrast, was easy; the Semple was slight but fun, whereas the Atkinson has been bottom of my list from the start.

Finally, my prediction for the actual winner... Based on my previously dismal record and some media comments, I'm going to predict, in disgust, that Life After Life will actually win. I will moan about this further when the prize is actually announced (although maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised?) so watch this space.

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