Thursday, June 06, 2013

Women's Prize for Fiction

Huge congratulations to A M Homes for winning the Women's Prize for Fiction for May We Be Forgiven, her hilarious, stomach-churning yet moving depiction of the implosion of the American Dream via the disintegrating life of a hapless historian trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard Nixon.

Homes is that really precious thing, most particularly in this age of fearful sensibilities: a writer who dares to break the false boundaries of taste and accepted sentiment in order to explore the complex, sordid yet touching truth about ourselves. There seems to me in Homes's writing a total lack of authorial timidity or self-regard, and I salute her.

In the (just less than) fortnight run-up to the prize I set out to read all of the shortlisted books and I managed them all except Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, of which I've only read a quarter. The thing that struck me most strongly was a transatlantic divide: three of the shortlistees were American and three British, and I found a literary-cultural difference in their books. It's often said that British literature is obsessed with the past, and it isn't only the UK Mantel's straightforwardly historical novel that seems to bear this out. British Kate Atkinson's structural tour-de-force, Life After Life,  is essentially about the horrors of war and plays with the thoroughly contemporary astro-physics notion of parallel universes and alternative lives; however, her focus is historical and the book pivots on a moment in 1910 when the protagonist is born into a Forsterian middle-class idyll about to be shattered by war. While the pivotal moment of Zadie Smith's NW is contemporary, an explicit theme is that of time, and much of the narrative is retrospective examination of how the characters got to the point where they are now.

It's not that the American writers aren't interested in history - Homes's protagonist is after all a historian - but what characterises all three are energetic plunges into the here and now to which history has led us, and a muscular facing up to the huge changes we are undergoing. Both Homes's novel and Maria Semple's very clever and entertaining yet moving Where D'You Go, Bernadette, are steeped in the technology that does indeed saturate our world, and capture the way that it is changing not only the texture of our lives but our psyches. Most urgent is Barbara Kingsolver's stunning Flight Behaviour, set in a place, America's rural bible belt, where climate change is seen as 'God's will' yet is most dramatically experienced.

A great shortlist, and great evidence of the strength of women's writing on both sides of the Atlantic.
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