I’ve been reading through some of the books on the Women’s Prize 2021 longlist, and I’d like to write brief notes about them. The last time I tried such a thing was in 2014, when Eimear McBride won. Since then, I’ve not been much interested in the longlisted titles, but, this year, some of the books listed were already on my TBR, so I decided to give the prize a go.
I have the impression that the current conditions of award tend to nudge publishers to enter more commercially viable books into the competition: if an entered book is longlisted, the publisher must contribute £1,000 (plus VAT), provide 25 copies of the book, and agree to sell further copies to the Women’s Prize Trust at 70% discount; if an entered book is shortlisted, the publisher must contribute £5,000 (plus VAT), provide a further 50 copies for publicity purposes, and agree to sell further copies to the Women’s Prize Trust at 70% discount; and, if an entered book wins the Prize, the publisher must contribute a further £5,000 (plus VAT), provide a further 25 copies for publicity purposes and agree to sell further copies to the Women’s Prize Trust at 70% discount. Publishers will also be responsible for covering travel costs and relevant expenses of bringing authors from overseas. Considering that the Prize is worth £30,000, these conditions may also discourage smaller, independent publishers from entering books into the competition – I don’t know.
Enough ramble, and on to my reading notes, from least favourite to favourite (so far):
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020) is narrated by Ava, a twenty-two-year-old Irish girl who moves to Hong Kong to teach English to children of wealthy Chinese families, while she tries to figure out what to do with her life. She starts an affair with a wealthy banker, twenty-eight-years old Julian, and falls in love with twenty-two-year-old Edith (Mei Ling Zhang), a Hong Kong-born and Cambridge-educated lawyer from a wealthy Chinese family.
The novel tries to explore questions of class, race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism through Ava’s romantic triangle, and follows a commercially viable formula that has proved successful after Sally Rooney’s boom. Well, I am a cranky elder ‘millennial’ who is yet to subscribe to Rooney’s well-marketed cult – so, perhaps I am not the best audience for this kind of book. Its comfortable combination of cynicism, self-absorption, and conformism (unsurprisingly marketed as ‘radicalism’ for a mention or two of the characters’ vague Marxist leanings) is not my piece of cake.
Watering down radical ideas into marketable labels is capitalism’s good old trick, and it feels no different with the so-called ‘millennial’ novels that try to explore questions of class while remaining deeply conformist and true to conventions. Far from engaging with real deprivation, marginalization, and economic exploration, Dolan (and Rooney) centre their books on white, well-educated, ‘gifted’, financially comfortable ‘millennials’ who claim as a personal brand a form of vague Marxism, but do not engage in collective action and are constantly buzzing around and falling in love with wealthy people, mourning the end of full-time employment, travelling the world to figure out their lives, drinking cappuccinos, curating their Instagram feeds, being generally politically upright while never engaging in political action, compulsively seeking external validation, and having their so-called financial problems solved more or less Deus ex machina.
Do we feel inspired to action after reading such books? Do we feel responsible? Do these books take a risk? Or do they simply endorse a system that nudges us to long for carefully curated personal brands and ‘Instagrammable’ cappuccinos? Do they mirror and endorse the same values (or lack thereof) they seem to want to denounce? Is that what makes them so saleable, so easy to read and to identify with? So easy not to be hurt, confused, or shaken by?
Every time a character in these books invokes (some watered-down, ‘Instagrammable’ idea of) Marxism, I think of Chekhov’s Gun: it better be fired by the second act, otherwise don’t put it there. Books so drenched in cynicism, moral sanctimony, ennui, and self-absorption leave no space for (and even mock) the truly radical choice of going beyond and challenging reality. Disenchantment may well be the opposite of revolution.
Well, this was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it? Let’s talk about what Dolan’s novel does exceptionally well: her exploration of the uses the English language as a way to discuss imperialism, prejudice, and privilege; her talent for conveying subtle forms of miscommunication and for describing the contradictions of social media etiquette; and, of course, her acerbic sense of humour.
I will leave you with two memorable quotes that illustrate what I am talking about: “‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right. I was teaching my students the same thing about white people”; “We both found it hilarious that Brits thought their international image was one of flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery. If they’d been a bit more indirect during the Opium Wars, or a bit more self-effacing on Bloody Sunday, then our countries would have been most appreciative. ‘That’s why they can’t accept that they did colonialism,’ Edith said. ‘They see themselves as people who can’t even get a dog put down.’”
Don’t take me wrong, Exciting Times (2020) is funny, light, escapist, conciliatory, and easy to read – and so are Rooney’s novels. To be able to do this and capture the Zeitgeist is no easy art. ‘Is it art?’ is not the question I am going for, but rather: ‘Is it Marxism?’. Are these books the political, radical novels they were marketed as? Or just novels with characters who find it cool to think of themselves as radicals? Chekhov’s gun is yet to be fired, but let’s have a cappuccino first.
About the book:
- Ecco (a publishing imprint of HarperCollins), 2020, 243 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3 stars
- Projects: Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy and Niall
Luster by Raven Leilani (2020)
Luster by Raven Leilani (2020) is another example of ‘millennial novel’ centred on a gifted woman in her early twenties who falls prey to late capitalism, gets involved in a love triangle, and narrates everything with a cynical, snarky voice. But this is a millennial novel with an edge.
It is narrated by Edie, a twenty-three-year-old Black woman trying to make it (and inevitably failing) in New York. She longs to be an artist, but is facing some kind of creative block. Meanwhile, she has a dead-end, low-paying job at a publishing house, sleeps with most of her colleagues, enters in abusive relationships, and shares a dilapidated apartment with a roommate who is mostly absent. Edie is depressed, constantly engages in self-destructive behaviour, and has a cynical view of life. She is drifting.
On a dating app, she meets Eric, a 46-year-old white man with a nice job and a house in the suburbs (protagonists in Rooney-esque novels seem to love this kind of guy, especially if he happens to be rich). Eric is in an open marriage with Rebecca, and the couple has adopted a Black girl, Akila.
Edie and Eric fall into a sexual affair with sadomasochistic tendencies, and she feels ever more drawn to the power imbalance — regarding age, income, race – in their relationship. “I can feel it in how cautiously he says African American. How he absolutely refuses to say the word black.”
Edie’s life goes downhill from there, she loses her job and becomes homeless. As her grip on reality weakens, the novel’s plot assumes an increasingly absurdist tone. In a turn of events, Edie moves in with Eric and Rebecca, and their family unit takes the form of a multi-headed Hydra: Edie is, at turns, lover, competitor, daughter, wife, friend, babysitter, big sister, mentor. At some point, she will start to feel erotically attracted to Rebecca: “It bothers me that she doesn’t wear prettier underwear, that her marriage is inscrutable and involved, and that I am somewhere inside it.”
As I said, the current brand of conformist-consumerist-cynicism-made-cool-for-your-curated-feed to which the so-called ‘millennial novels’ seem to subscribe is not my cup of tea – and this novel, alas, has no short amount of it. Yes, it is funny; yes, we all love a snarky voice and biting social commentary – especially when the bite fits an acceptable, commercially viable mould. But it can be a bit tiring, when it develops into self-conscious posturing, and starts to spin around its own tail. Like all protagonists in ‘millennial fiction’, Edie can also be self-conscious, deeply flawed, self-deprecating, and over-concerned with being seen: “It is not that I want company, but that I want to be affirmed by another pair of eyes.”
Let’s talk instead about what Leilani excels at: her free-wheeling narrative voice; her talent for conveying miscommunication; her moments of understated wit; her sexual frankness; her implacable take on corporate life, the publishing world, racism, and gender imbalance.
Take this scene, for instance, where Edie muses about the not so diverse ‘diversity’ books from the publishing house she works for: “(…) a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a Black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead.”
The novel’s opening lines are also memorable: “The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light. He is uptown processing a new bundle of microfiche and I am downtown handling corrections for a new Labrador detective manuscript. He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing”.
For such a bold voice, however the ending reads a bit too conciliatory and tame. Edie is a force of nature – she didn’t need to be explained away so neatly. But this is a book of its time: it must be made smooth around the edges to fit in.
About the book
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 240 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- Projects: ReadSoulLit, hosted by Didi
Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters (2021)
At the start of Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters (2021), a trans woman named Reese receives a call from her ex, Ames, who has been carrying on an affair with his boss, the cisgender woman Katrina. We soon learn that Ames once lived with Reese as a trans woman named Amy.
Timeline and pronouns shift constantly from present to past, from Reese to Ames and Ames to Amy, from he to she and back. Reese entered in a series of self-destructive relationships with married man, the couple separated, and Amy decided to de-transition. Not because she was not a woman, but because of the difficulties involved in living as one.
Now, after a secret affair, Ames has got his boss pregnant, and does not feel comfortable with assuming the role of father. So, he comes up with a plan to queer up parenthood: knowing that Reese always longed to be a mother, he invites her to raise his child together with him and Katrina: “he would always be a woman. By borrowing her vantage, he could almost see himself as a parent: Perhaps one way to tolerate being a father would be to have her constant presence assuring him that he was actually not one.”
Katrina herself has some issues with heteronormativity: recently divorced, she didn’t feel happy in the role of wife, and went on to say that “the Ennui of Heterosexuality” was responsible for the end of her marriage.
“The only people who have anything worthwhile to say about gender are divorced cis women who have given up on heterosexuality but are still attracted to men,” Reese tells Katrina. “Divorce is a transition story. Of course, not all divorced women go through it. I’m talking about the ones who felt their divorce as a fall, or as a total reframing of their lives. The ones who have seen how the narratives given to them since girlhood have failed them, and who know there is nothing to replace it all. But who still have to move forward without investing in new illusions or turning bitter—all with no plan to guide them. That’s as close to a trans woman as you can get. Divorced women are the only people who know anything like what I know.”
I love the way the author took a topic which is commonly used by transphobic people – de-transition – and then shifted it into a trans-affirming device, queering it even further. Ames never stops to identify as a woman, but decides to de-transition as a form of self-protection. Detransition provided Amy with “a pocket of space to separate herself from the bright emotions of shame and fear, a veil between herself and the curious eyes on the subway and at work.”
I also love the nuanced way the novel touches on topics such as ‘being trans’ and ‘doing trans’, gender identity and gendered performance, and how it refuses to conflate the use of pronouns she/he with Amy/Ames gender identity (which is another instance of shifting a transphobic take into a trans-affirming one). Self-determination is at the heart of the book, and the identities, relationships, and roles shift seamlessly throughout the story.
Yes, the book has a soap-opera feel, some clumsy dialogues, and a messy plot: but it wears all of its faults unapologetically and with great flair. It is funny, tender, provocative, and fresh. It breaks something open and invites us to trespass back and forth.
About the book
- One World (an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House), 2021, 227 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (2020)
The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (2020) follows the parallel lives of twins Stella and Desiree Vignes, born in the fictional small town of Mallard, Louisiana, founded by their great-great-great grandfather in the mid-19th century. A former slave, he decided to create a town for “men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. The town is then established under a strict colour code where the future generations would be “like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the one before.”
Such code is a reinforcement of the racism and segregation the residents live through outside the town, and it doesn’t protect the twins from witnessing their father’s lynching by a gang of white men, nor from being denied opportunities beyond taking up low-paying domestic service for white families.
Wishing for a better life, Desiree and Stella, now sixteen, flee from home and land in New Orleans, where Stella soon does her vanishing act and disappears. Both twins can pass as white, but only Stella decides to go through with it: “Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.”
The novel opens fourteen years later, in 1968, when Desiree returns to Mallard, bearing the bruises of domestic abuse on her body, and clutching the hand of her small daughter, Jude, whose darker skin draws the attention of people in town. In a fragmented narrative that shifts seamlessly from past to present and back, we learn more about the twins’ diverging paths.
Meanwhile, Stella has married wealthy white man and has had a daughter named Kennedy. The vanishing half of the twins is not only passing as a white woman, but also internalizing racism and white privilege. It’s “a performance where there could be no audience. Only a person who knew her real identity would appreciate her acting, and nobody at work could ever know.”
The novel than goes on to explore the converging paths of the twins’ daughters. While Kennedy is trying to make it as an actress, Jude falls in love with Reese, a trans man trying to save money for his surgery.
I love the way the novel touches on the topics of racial and gender identity, as well as the ideas of race and gender as performance. “A body could be labeled but a person couldn’t, and the difference between the two depended on that muscle in your chest. That beloved organ, not sentient, not aware, not feeling, just jumping along keeping you alive.”
I also liked the nuanced way the book tries to convey the vanishing act of passing for white – passing as a choice that exposes the arbitrariness of race but also reinforces the racial hierarchies it intends to breach; a choice that involves at once transgressing whiteness and vanishing into it; a choice between personal freedom and responsibility to a community, between belonging to and breaking free from something; a choice that can be at once transgressive and conformist, a form of exposing and hiding oneself, a liberation and a cage. “That was the thrill of youth, the idea that you could be anyone. That was what captured her [Stella] in the charm shop, all those years ago. Then adulthood came, your choices solidifying, and you realize that everything you are had been set in motion years before. The rest was aftermath. So she understood why her daughter was searching for a self, and she even blamed herself for it. Maybe something in the girl was unsettled, a small part of her realizing that life wasn’t right. As if she’d gotten older and started touching the trees, only to find they were all cardboard sets.”
Rather than pontifying or being too didactic, Bennett explores different aspects of the topics of identity and performance by embedding small elements in the plot: the study of fingerprints; drag queens; a trans man; actors; housewives playing the role of a perfect family; a matriarch suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, mistaking the identity of others and losing her own, as if she, too, were vanishing – the list goes on.
Bennett’s take on the subject of passing is the clever antithesis to the one commonly found when white authors try to explore the topic. In Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life (1933) – which was made into a movie twice (in 1934, directed by John M. Stahl, IMDb; and in 1959, directed by Douglas Sirk, IMDb) and parodied by Langston Hughes in his play Limitations of Life (1938) -, the protagonist who passes for white repeats the trope of the “tragic mulatta” and meets with a tragic fate that only restores and reinforces a racial order structured around white privilege.
In Bennett’s novel, on the other hand, while we do have an exploration of passing as a moral transgression to a community (and, perhaps, to oneself), this exploration is more nuanced; the retribution, if it happens at all, is more ambiguous and tries to question white privilege in itself rather than the individual who is subjected to it and tries to fit in and pass.
The book, of course, is not without its weaknesses: the plot does rely heavily on coincidences; the characters can be a bit too flat; and the story will end a bit too neatly. I also missed the edge I find and love in Bennett’s earlier pieces, such in her 2014 essay I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People. You know me: I do like and miss a strong undercurrent of unapologetic anger.
But, with all its faults, The Vanishing Half succeeds at this difficult magic trick: it manages to explore complex and controversial topics, while remaining compulsively readable, expansive, entertaining, and commercially viable.
Bennett’s novel is often compared to Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), and many people go even further and say that The Vanishing Half was based on Larsen’s novella. Part of it has to do with the fact that Larsen’s book has been reissued around the same time as Bennet’s was published, and has also been into a movie – so, it has been a marketing strategy to link the two books. But, in terms of literary criticism, to reduce Bennet’s novel to Larsen’s is a very limiting view, which only seems to show a deep unfamiliarity with Black literature on the subject of passing (or in general).
The Vanishing Half is much more than Passing’s twin sister: it stands on itself as a celebration of a long tradition of Black writing – and one of the joys of reading it is to identify its subtle nods to this tradition. Yes, we can see nods to Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), but we can also see nods to Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1892); Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral by Jessie Redmon Fauset (1928); The Purple Flower, by Marita Bonner (1928); Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (1937); The Street, by Ann Petry (1946); Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953); A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry (1959); Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Tar Baby (1981); and The Wedding, by Dorothy West (1995).
“I wanted to write a book that was not just about Black pain, but also about Black love”, Bennett declared about her book. The Vanishing Half starts with a mother holding her daughter’s hand, and ends with this same daughter holding her trans partner’s hand. “The key to staying lost was to never love anything”, one character says at some point early in the book. As we read through it, we can feel as Bennett, and Larsen, and Redmon Fauset, Hurston, Bonner, Hansberry, West, and many more, join their hands. We can feel the struggle not to stay lost. We can feel the current of love running through.
About the book
The 2021 Longlist
As I said, I do not intend to read the entire longlist, and you can see below the books I am planning to tackle. Other bloggers are doing an excellent job at reading and reviewing all the longlisted titles, so you should check them out: Callum, Naty, Eric, Emily, Hannah, Marija, Laura, Rebecca, and Rachel. Rachel also published a post on the Women’s Prize Complete Longlist history and created a corresponding Google spreadsheet!
On to the 2021 longlist:
- Read books are marked as (✓)
- Favourites are marked as (✨)
- DNFed books are
- Books I still want to read are highlighted
- Shortlisted books are in bold
- ✓✨The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
- Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
- Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
- How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
- Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- ✓✨Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
- ✓Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
- ✓Luster by Raven Leilani
- Summer by Ali Smith
- Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
- Consent by Annabel Lyon
- Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
- The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
- Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
- Because of You by Dawn French
That’s all for now, folks! What do you think about the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Are you happy with this year’s shortlist?