The Warwickshire Readers Group met on Monday 3 June to discuss and decide their choice for this year’s Women’s Prize for fiction. Each year, the group reads all shortlisted titles and decides on both their favourite and the book they think the judges will pick. From a varied list this year, with titles that sparked a lot of conversation and debate, here are the group’s thoughts and decision.
‘The Silence of the Girls‘ – Pat Barker
Pat Barker’s take on the female experience of war in Ancient times received mixed reviews from the group. While many felt it was “moving”, inventive and brilliantly written, others found it repetitive. Seen as a faithful narrative of women’s experiences in war and the perspectives and activities they undertake that are often ignored in the history books, the group felt that even a reader who didn’t know the history would and could still enjoy the novel. There was a strong feeling that women within the novel supported each other, something not seen in other titles in the shortlist and where women fit into society was crafted well – going from Queen to slave is a big adjustment but puts a woman in an unusual position of being right in the middle of the action, serving at banquets and washing the war dead but with little power to influence events. The sense of what it means to lose everything also come across in the book.
For many in the group, this was the one to beat, though not all were convinced. Some felt that it is a novel that will still be around in many years time, while for others, it was enjoyable but not the one to take the Prize.
‘My Sister The Serial Killer‘ – Oyinkan Braithwaite
The group felt this was an engaging novel that delivered an enjoyable reading experience but that lacked a bit of depth. The early events have shock quality but this wasn’t sustained throughout the novel which didn’t deliver the ending many wanted. Discussion about elements of corruption and women’s experience of both this and other power structures was interesting and the book was well crafted and a quick read. Overall, however, for the group, this wasn’t a prize winner.
‘Milkman‘ – Anna Burns
Several of the group had already read ‘Milkman’ as it was part of (and won) the Man Booker Prize which is the other prize the group often shadow reads. This divided discussion – for some, the stream of consciousness writing was an immersive experience that reflected the chaos of real life, full of black humour and wonderful characters, while for others, it was a difficult read with the format of no paragraphs or character names making reading a challenge rather than a joy. An interesting point came up in discussion as some had listened to the book on audio and felt that this was a much more enjoyable way of engaging with it. The voice of the book really came over. This sparked lots of conversation about why we read – do we look for books that challenge us, make us think or do we want a simpler experience? The group didn’t have an answer but this is a book that is certainly thought-provoking in many ways.
Many felt that ‘Milkman’ portrayed the Troubles in Ireland in a very open and realistic way. Time was spent discussing memories from that time and reflecting how a young girl would have viewed what was happening from the perspective of growing up within those events. The lack of female support and solidarity was highlighted in the novel – unlike others on the list, no one really looked out for each other amongst the female characters – it was every woman for themselves. Overall, it was felt that ‘Milkman’ fits neatly into a tradition of Irish writing including authors such as Flann O’Brien, and Marian Keyes – great story tellers that give us immersive stories full of rich characters and challenging prose.
‘Ordinary People‘ – Diana Evans
Some within the group knew the area in which this novel is set in London, making it, for them, a much more engaging read than for others. The multiple perspectives was an interesting feature the group decided, although the relationships ended up depressing many who had managed to finish the novel (some only got part of the way through, both due to time constraints and a lack of engagement with it). The issue of race sparked some interesting reflections, though lacking background to the subject meant the group felt that they might have missed some of the nuance in the book. Characters were felt to have isolated themselves and made themselves unhappy, although a discussion about depression and postnatal depression was sparked with some sympathy developing as the discussion moved on.
The roles of men and women within families and society was an interesting part of the book. Several in the group felt that the novel covered universal topics of relationships and how they survive parenthood and sparked a lot of reflection about the group’s own experiences- the notion that there is no perfect example of motherhood and no answer to the question of women “having it all”. It was also felt that the novel highlighted the connections (or lack of) that communities can foster and how these networks can support and help/how their absence can be damaging. On the whole, however, this wasn’t a group favourite as a lack of resolution, some unexplained/confusing and maybe supernatural elements to the story that never fully get explained and some un-relatable characters made it the least favourite for the group.
‘An American Marriage‘ – Tayari Jones
This one divided the group – though many found the premise interesting and the structure of chapters told from the different perspectives of the main characters engaging, some found the events of the novel a little too convenient to move the story along. The male characters were described as ‘horrid’ in places, while the main female character fared little better. The relationships generated a lot of discussion – how flimsy they felt which made the events of the novel unsurprising as a strong foundation was lacking. Some of the references in the book were very American and this limited some understanding, though the group acknowledged that, as with ‘Ordinary People’, the topic of race made this a thought-provoking read that some felt could win when the Prize is announced this week.
Discussion also arose around the way relationships were portrayed in this novel – many reflected that when the going gets tough, some of the characters get going, others don’t. The group pondered whether this was generational – with younger people looking for instant gratification and quickly moving on if something is satisfying enough? A topic for debate no doubt!
‘Circe‘ by Madeline Miller
From a beautiful looking book perspective, this was the group’s favourite by far with the cover appeal very highly rated. The group felt that it was extraordinary that both this and ‘The Silence of the Girls’ made the shortlist as they are very similar. However, this did not stop many in the group enjoying it (though some did think it a bit repetitive and overlong). Again, seeing the female perspective of a male-dominated myth was eye-opening and despite the challenges faced, Circe comes out top in the end! Some of the group felt, however, that more could have been explained about the motivations of the women – we know what the myths tell us about the characters but, unlike Barker’s novel, the motivations weren’t delved into in enough details for some. The other point of discussion this bought up was that although revisiting classic tales from the female perspective is very current, how long will it be before such a hook feels tired? Lots of similar titles are being published at the moment and although relevant as society explores the role of women throughout the world, some felt that we might reach a saturation point.
For all of the group, this year’s shortlist proved enjoyable to read on the whole, with many feeling that some titles will stick around and continue to be read for years to come. And if you’re wondering what the results of the vote were, here they are:
Group favourite: ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker
What the group think will win: ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker
We find out on June 5 if we’re right! Happy reading!