The Women's Prize for Fiction 2019

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The Women’s Prize shortlist of 2019 was one of our favourites for years. Kate Williams, the chair of judges, has revealed that the panel deliberated for four hours to choose a winner. The eventual winner, Tayari Jones for her fourth novel An American Marriage, said “I think, in these times, we need women’s voices more than ever,” and we could not agree more.

Our money was on Madeleine Miller’s Circe, which regular readers know we were bowled over by last month. We felt that Miller’s scholarly classicism combined with her hyper-engaging prose style would once again prove a hit with the judges (her first novel, The Song of Achilles won what was then called the Orange Prize in 2012).

We also thought Pat Barker was in with a shout for Silence of the Girls, her 14th novel, which similarly offered a feminist slant on a Homeric epic.

 

The Heartland by Nathan Filer

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The Heartland, by Nathan Filer, who won the Costa Prize for his novel The Shock and the Fall, might be the most terrifying book published this year. It opens by putting the reader in the position of a schizophrenic patient being forcibly medicated against his will. The patient believes the medication contains poison but Filer (a former psychiatric nurse) must nonetheless administer it, apparently for the patient’s own good. 

His powers of empathy as a writer are such that this opening section had me physically recoiling, and anyone who has ever felt they are going mad will find resonance in these pages. The case studies are compelling as well as frequently heartbreaking and are enough in themselves to make The Heartland worth reading.  

Filer’s mission is bigger, however, than wanting his readers to identify with those suffering from schizophrenia.

 

Meet the QCs

I’ll be discussing legal matters on June 5th with William Clegg QC, author of the riveting memoir Under the Wig and Tom Grant QC, author of Court Number One, about the Old Bailey’s most notorious trials.

Tom Grant will be discussing some of the most infamous defendants of the twentieth century including Ruth Ellis, Jeremy Thorpe and Ian Huntley.

William Clegg has fought some of the biggest murder trials in Britain. He will be talking about some of his most intriguing trials, from the acquittal of Colin Stagg to the shooting of Jill Dando, to the man given a life sentence because of an ear print. He will also touch on his unusual route to becoming a QC and how our right to a fair trial is now at risk.

Tickets available via the link below. All tickets, hallelujah, include wine.

BUY TICKETS

 

Circe by Madeline Miller

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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

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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

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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.