Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe.jpg

If you went near a Waterstones in April, you will have seen stacks of Circe, a paperback with a beautifully intricate bronze and black cover. It was their book of the month and is also ours and – having now made the shortlist – may win this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Anyone who has read Madeline Miller’s heady first novel Song of Achilles (2012) will know why her second book has appealed to such a broad range of readers. They will also be keen to devour it because Miller has once again turned a Homeric epic into, as the Independent said of her first book, “a sexy page-turner.”

Song of Achilles has now been published in 25 languages as well as winning the Women’s Prize for fiction (then called the Orange Prize). It has also helped shift perceptions of classical epics. When Miller wrote Song of Achilles, Margaret Atwood may have already written The Penelopiad (her 2005 retelling of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Odysseus’s wife) but internationally bestselling feminist takes on classical epics were still a rarity.

 

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory.jpeg

Elizabeth Macneal’s debut historical novel arrives with some fanfare from the publishers of The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton’s wildly successful debut historical novel of 2014. For the most part, the excitement is justified. Macneal is a talented writer and this is a frankly moreish novel. We are not in Amsterdam in the 1680s this time but London in the 1850s.

Macneal’s heroine, Iris Whittle, was born with a slight deformity which has not dented her sanguine temperament, unlike her once beautiful but now bitter and pockmarked twin sister, Rose. It also doesn’t prevent her from catching the eye of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 

The sisters paint the faces on china dolls in Mrs Salter’s Doll Emporium but Iris has (bold, given the period) ambitions to become a painter. She also has an admirer in the sinister taxidermist Silas Reed. At one stage, “He imagines her bladder within her, wet and pink like the inside of a peach, and then apart from her, dried out and white like a crisp pig’s ear.” 

 

We, The Survivors by Tash Aw

Tash Aw.jpg

It’s not immediately obvious who the survivors in Tash Aw’s formidable new novel are, or who the narrator even is, or who has been killed. We know there has been a murder, however, or a culpable homicide not amounting to murder, as the narrator quotes the person being addressed as describing it. Details reveal themselves gradually: the narrator is a Chinese Malaysian man called Lee Hock Lye — known to his friends as Ah Hock — who is recounting the story to a local journalist of how he ended up in prison (for what part, in what crime exactly, we don’t know yet).

His descriptions of the night of the killing are vivid: ‘I walked through the long grass — it was stringy and sharp and slashed my legs right up to my knees. It was hot, I was wearing shorts, my skin started to sting.’ Alongside this intense rendering of sensations, there is a powerful feeling of disassociation, and at times Ah Hock recalls Meursault, the title character of Camus’s L’Étranger.

 

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

queenie.jpg

The titular heroine of Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie begins the book with her legs in stirrups, undergoing a gynaecological exam. This sets the tone for a debut novel that is a candid and funny, no-holds-barred exploration of a young black woman’s life. 

The colour of Queenie’s skin is absolutely not incidental: she is exoticised by men on dating apps, in the street and even in her office. She notes this with humour, exasperated at “men calling me confectionery” as they tell her she “tastes like chocolate”. But what makes Queenie so appealing is that this doesn’t stop her from sleeping with these men — she feels utterly, fallibly real. 

The casual sex she has after breaking up with her long-term boyfriend is frequent and random, but what makes it disturbing is that it is violent enough to leave her with injuries that alarm a sexual-health adviser sufficiently for her to recommend counselling.

 

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt

Memories of the Future.jpg

Siri Hustvedt has never been afraid to go against the grain, and her seventh novel, Memories of the Future, confirms it. She has important things to say about sexual politics, capitalism and art but enjoying this book as a reader means relinquishing the desire for the plot to make linear, logical sense. 

Those of us who love her work will consider it worth the mental switch, and there is a great deal of transformative joy to be found in this story of a young woman arriving in New York to find her voice as a writer. The 23-year-old in question is later known by the initials “SH” and is nicknamed “Minnesota”, the state Hustvedt herself is from. 

The similarities between the author and her fictional heroine don’t end there: as a student, Hustvedt looked pale enough with hunger for a university professor to encourage her to ask for an emergency loan.

 

Leila Slimani: Sex and Freedom

Leila Slimani.jpg

Leila Slimani’s novel Lullaby not only won the Prix Goncourt in 2016, making her the first Moroccan-born winner of the prize, but it also was the most read book in France for that year. Emmanuel Macron, who is known to consider himself a man of letters, asked to meet her during his presidential campaign and she publicly supported him as a candidate.

French media subsequently reported that he offered her a job as a culture minister once he was elected but she has since accepted a less demanding role reporting to him on Francophone literature and culture; traditionally, a post for a career politician.

This feels a long way from 2010 when she was arrested by the Tunisian Army whilst working as a journalist during the Arab Spring. When I meet her in a central London hotel, she describes feeling like “it was 20 years ago.”