Women's Prize for Fiction 2013

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It used to be the Orange Prize for Fiction - now it's the Women's Prize for Fiction


May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes


May We Be Forgiven is not an easy book to summarise. The book is narrated by Harold, a fairly pedestrian academic teacher and aspiring writer of history and particularly the Nixon era. We don't have to wait long for the catalyst that changes his life fundamentally over the course of a year. His high flying, younger brother, George, is involved in a car accident shortly after Thanksgiving and an adulterous encounter will change the lives of Harold and George forever. AM Homes offers a biting satire of the American Dream, taking swipes at materialism, families that are more nuclear fallout than nuclear, Internet sex sites and the dependence on drugs and psychiatrists to keep people on the straight and narrow. Full review...


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson


Spanning the period from just before World War One to the end of World War Two, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life tells the story of Ursula Todd. Or more accurately, it tells the potential stories of Ursula Todd. If you've seen the movie Sliding Doors then you will have some idea of the concept Atkinson explores; that of small changes in life leading to different outcomes, many of which lead to tragic endings but strangely the book manages to be a celebration of the spirit of Ursula and is often quite uplifting. It's a book that sounds like it is going to be much more confusing than it is though and the result is a very special book indeed. It's that rare thing of a book that has a strong literary style but which is also very readable. Full review...

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver


Set in rural Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow is a young mother, trapped in the result of a shotgun wedding in a largely loveless marriage on her husband's failing family farm dominated by the disapproval of her God-fearing mother in law. She dreams of escape with equally unsuitable younger men until one day on her way to acting on this impulse for the first time, she encounters an act of nature that will change her life for good. Barbara Kingsolver perfectly captures in the opening paragraphs the sense of entrapment and dissatisfaction of Dellarobia and doesn't let up for a moment. Full review...

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel


Thomas Cromwell is now very far from his humble beginnings. He is Henry VIII's chief minister. Katherine of Aragorn is no longer Queen. The Princess Mary has been disinherited. Anne Boleyn wears the crown and has produced a daughter, Elizabeth. But there is no sign of a son and Henry is beginning to regret his secession from Rome. We pick up from Wolf Hall during the royal progress of 1535 and from there, we chart the destruction of the new Queen. Full review...

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple


Much like the missing question mark in the title it would seem, Bernadette has disappeared. Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette works as both a physical and emotional question. Bernadette Fox is the wife of Elgie Branch, a star at Microsoft in Seattle, and mother of 15 year old, Bee. The narrative begins with Bee wondering where her mother had gone, but then quickly moves to an epistolary format told in e-mails, notes and messages between the major players, including some rather obnoxious mothers at Bee's school, one of whom also works at Microsoft with Elgie. We are taken back a few weeks to when Bernadette was around and a seemingly somewhat angry mother prior to her mysterious disappearance. One of the delights about the book, which along with being very funny on issues like helicopter parenting, corporate life and, er, Canadians, is that it emerges that Bernadette is more than a wife and mother but has a past career of her own as a talented architect which she has sacrificed for one reason or another. Thus, in many ways she disappeared long before her physical disappearance. Full review...

NW by Zadie Smith


Fans of Zadie Smith have had a seven year wait since her last book On Beauty. In NW, Smith returns to more of the issues addressed in her brilliant debut novel White Teeth. Set in parts of London that should be obvious from the title, the book takes the lives of four people who grew up on a rough estate and looks at how they have moved on - or not. All four still live nearby the estate where they grew up. There's multi-cultural tension and the have and have nots of power and money and Smith looks at how much individuals are in control of their destiny and ability to rise out of their upbringing, and how chance encounters can bring you back to your past with a bump. Full review...


A Trick I Learned from Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge


Kitty Aldridge's A Trick I Learned from Dead Men is a touchingly written, quirky story set in the world of funeral homes. The narrator is twenty-something Lee Hart. He's not the sharpest tool in the box, but his life has been tough. His father left when he was young and his mother has recently died of cancer leaving him, his step-father, a sofa-bound television make-over show addict and his deaf and wayward younger brother, Ned to fend for themselves. Lee lands a job as a trainee at the local funeral home helping Derek prepare the dead for burial or cremation. Far from being a dead end job though, it is here that he learns, ironically, about life and love, in the form of the delivery girl from the local florists. Full review...

The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber


Stop. Pay attention. Hear a dead man speak

These are the attention grabbing words that Ros Barber addresses to the reader at the start of this unique tale. Marlowe was a playwright with a reputation not only for his plays but also for his lifestyle. His gory death from a stab wound through the eye is one of the many contentious points in a brief but very lively life. Full review...

The People of Forever are not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu


Yael, Lea and Avishag go through their final years at high school in a little Israeli town on the Lebanese border and then on to the inevitable: the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Gender is immaterial, all Israeli citizens must serve at least two years and for these girls the moment arrives after graduation. Yael's posting seems futile as she guards a training base against marauding lads, sneaking across the border to pinch perfume from pockets rather than pose any real security threat. Lea's assignment on a border checkpoint searching the daily line of immigrant workers is riddled with routine. Avishag joins up with her own demons, her brother Dan having died after his national service. She knows how it happened but continues to struggle with why; something she must handle alone. Full review...

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn


There’s a distressing moment in any long-term relationship where you realise that, in practice, happily ever after looks a lot like an eternity of small, snarling arguments about who forgot to buy food, who should take out the rubbish and who is responsible for that mouldering pile of clothes in the corner of the bedroom. Domestic bliss is often more like very polite guerrilla warfare between two people who love each other so much that they want to spend the rest of their lives fighting about it. You and your partner are absolutely in each other’s pockets – but no matter how close you are, there’s always one last barrier you can’t break down. You aren’t them, and they aren’t you, and so you can never truly know what’s really going on inside that well-known head. Full review...

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti


Much has been made in the media about the similarity in approach of Sheila Heti's fictionalised autobiographical How Should A Person Be? and Lena Dunham's HBO television series Girls. They certainly share a similarly bleak and introspective view of life, both are apparently based on the writer's own experience, both have a somewhat knowingly shock factor particularly when it comes to sex and both leave me somewhat depressed and sad. And both have been critical successes in the US. Indeed, How Should A Person Be? also features on the 2013 long list for the Women's Prize for Fiction, although it's not easy to assess where the fiction starts and the reality stops. In fact, the conceit is also somewhat similar to the scripted reality shows that dominate certain television channels. The effect is something that is interesting as a concept and exercise but less than enjoyable to read. Full review...

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam


David Lamb is anchored to his life by his career, his affair-ridden marriage and caring for his father. Over time, his wife divorces him, his father dies and his employers insist he takes a period of enforced leave. So what's left? There is just one constant remaining: his friendship with Tommie who, he feels, would be an ideal holiday companion. He suggests that they both take a short trip as it would do them both good and Tommie agrees eagerly. The adventure then begins in the form of a journey to a beautiful, remote cabin. David is 54 years old and Tommie? She's 11. Full review...

The Forrests by Emily Perkins


This is the chronicle of the Forrest family during the life of daughter Dorothy. They move ('they' being Dorothy, father Frank, mother Lee and siblings Michael, Evelyn and little Ruthie) from New York to New Zealand at the age of seven years old. Frank hopes the migration will signal a change in his luck as well as a new life for his family. He's right in that changes follow but there are as many to shake their stability as to still it and the past remains with each of them as well as the de facto adoptee Daniel. Indeed, Dorothy grows to realise that the past is a garment that's worn in some form throughout an entire lifetime. Full review...

Ignorance by Michele Roberts


Michèle Roberts's Ignorance is a beautifully written, lyrical story about life in wartime France. Narrated mainly by two characters, Jeanne and Marie-Angèle, it jumps back and forward in time and is an enthralling mixture of guilt, faith, and survival. The two girls could not be more different. Marie-Angèle is the grocer's daughter while Jeanne is the daughter of a Jewish mother who washes clothes for a living. The two girls together go to the village convent for their education but come from different ends of the social spectrum. When the German occupation arrives, the two girls' experiences are very different but both are 'ignorant' of each others plight and their judgements are repeatedly shown to be wide of the mark. In fact the book could just as well have been titled 'Judgement'. Just when you think you know one through the eyes of the other, you get the opposite view of things. Full review...

The Innocents by Francesca Segal


Francesca Segal's debut novel, The Innocents is set in upper class, Jewish, North London. Adam is about to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, and is working as a lawyer in her father's business. Into this romantic idyl though comes Ellie, Rachel's wayward cousin who has been forced to flee the US following an appearance in an 'art house' movie of dubious repute and, it turns out, further scandal. Ellie is everything that Rachel is not; a model, worldly, sexy and tempting. As Adam gets drawn into wanting to 'rescue' her and look after her, his whole future with Rachel is thrown into doubt and the story becomes a will they, won't they get together narrative. Full review...

Honour by Elif Shafak


Jamila and Pembe are twins who, growing up among the Kurdish in Turkey, are as wrapped in the customs of their Muslim faith and heritage as they are in the love of their family. While Jamila develops a talent that will make her the hub of her community, Pembe's destiny lies over the sea as she migrates to England with her husband Adem in search of a better life. However, the destiny that each travels towards is oh so different from the destiny of which they dream. Full review...

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman


Thomas Sherbourne returns to Australia after World War I. Internally scarred like many of his generation, he chooses the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock to escape the world and its conflict. However, he soon learns that there is one part of the world he can't live without – the sassy, beautiful Izzy Graysmark, a local from the nearest port and country town of Partaguese. They have a happy marriage in all respects apart from one: they're haunted by their inability to have children. Therefore, one day, when a boat washes up onto Janus bearing a dead man and a crying baby, apparent salvation arrives too. Full review...

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany


In the early nineteen fifties a lonely, middle-aged farmer observed the birds on his land and recorded what he saw in the blank pages of his milk ledger. His animals and the birds were his family and his land - difficult though it could be - a part of him. Whilst Harry watched and recorded, his neighbour, Betty, watched Harry and recorded the childhood illnesses and accidents of her two children. By day she worked in a nursing home where she was a lunchtime 'wife', sitting at the bedside of some of the old men in her care. Her daughter, Hazel, kept a nature notebook which was completely factual and accepting of birth and death in a way that can only be achieved by those who live with livestock - and deadstock - on a daily basis. Full review...

Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson


Alif lives under an alias and he has a good reason for that: he's a hakinista in an Arabian oil producing country that, to put it mildly, doesn't encourage free speech. He sells IT know-how and wizardy to any covert organisation that works against the government, their agenda unimportant as long as the aim is the downfall of their oppression. But all that's about to change as Alif falls in love and, as it's the wrong girl at the wrong time, is spurned. His response to this romantic let down is to create a computer programme that will identify her internet activity by her individual typing pattern. Unfortunately what works for him also works against him. It's captured by the notoriously dangerous government censor 'The Hand' who also wants Alif and his hidden network of colleagues. Now Alif runs to preserve his life and those who have trusted him, his only possession an ancient manuscript from his former love. Just a book, albeit one that's accompanied by myths and old wives' tales rendering it irrelevant a logical world. However, sometimes the most desperate of times requires more than logic and, sometimes, a mere book of stories may be more than it seems. Full review...