>> Wednesday, June 05, 2013
The winner of the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) will be announced tonight. Turns out I've read 3 out of the 6 books on the shortlist, and not because they were on the list, but simply because they caught my interest independently.
TITLE: Bring Up The Bodies
AUTHOR: Hilary Mantel
Bring Up The Bodies continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, which started in Wolf Hall. While Wolf Hall is the story of his ascent into power and how he became Henry VIII's go-to man, Bring Up The Bodies has him in full control. Henry's much fought-for marriage to Anne Boleyn has gone sour, and as usual, it's Cromwell he turns to to give him what he wants (in this case, to be able to marry the woman he's decided will be an excellent substitute, Jane Seymour).
As suggested above, more than a sequel, this is a continuation of Wolf Hall. I've reread my long review of the latter, and every single thing one of the elements I was so in love with there applies to this one as well. It's a well-worn story, but in the telling it from Cromwell's point of view, Mantel makes it fresh again.
The 3rd person POV is done in such a way that it makes us see the action as if we were in Cromwell's mind, and the present-tense forcefully makes the point that, while we know what happens next, Cromwell doesn't. It has lost the shock of the new that it had in Wolf Hall, but on the other hand, Mantel's handling of it has become even more deft here.
In short, I loved it just as much as I hoped, and my expectations for book 3 are now ridiculously high.
MY GRADE: An A.
TITLE: Life After Life
Ursula Todd is born in 1910 with her cord round her throat. The doctor is stuck in the snow and can't make it in time, so Ursula dies. Then Ursula Todd is born in 1910 with her cord round her throat, but the doctor makes it in time and manages to cut the cord. She grows up healthy, and then drowns while bathing in the sea in Cornwall with her older sister. And then Ursula Todd is born in 1910... and you can guess what follows. Life After Life follows Ursula as she explores the many different paths her life could take.
Life After Life just blew my mind, it was so good. I knew the premise before I started, and half feared it would become tedious and I, as the reader, would feel as if I myself was caught in groundhog day. Through sheer great writing and plotting, Atkinson avoided this. Retracing the territory already covered didn't feel repetitive, it felt like we were exploring a different facet, and it it was incredibly rewarding to spot the echoing, the little details that show how Ursula is avoiding the pitfalls she fell into in other lives. It becomes clear that small decisions can have huge consequences, and that which the right ones are isn't obvious.
I should say as well that I cared about Ursula. In more careless, less talented hands, this could have felt like playing a video game. Oh, so your character has just died a horrible death? Never mind you've got a few more lives. It wasn't like that at all here. Ursula's fate mattered.
There are some very harrowing sections, but it's a surprisingly funny book. It's low key, make-you-smile humour, rather than laugh-out-loud humour, but I loved it. "Darkness fell", the formula Atkinson uses to indicate Urusula's death, sometimes changes to things like "Darkness, and so on", when fate is proving particularly obdurate. I giggled, and I think that's what was intended.
It's a book that makes you think. I spent quite some time after I finished it contemplating its meaning. Why is Ursula living again and again? It's not always her actions that change fate, often it's others. And what is it to get it right, for once? What does success look like? I think the important thing here is to ask the question at all. In fact, the actual ending suggests that the obvious answer might not be the right one. Then again, it might be. Ambiguous endings often annoy me, but this was perfect.
MY GRADE: Another A.
PS: Working in the area of health and safety has warped my mind. As I read, I couldn't help thinking that in addition to being really great fiction, this would probably work beautifully as a training manual for people learning to do risk assessments. As I read, I kept looking for ways in which Ursula could be killed, constantly evaluating every single element and setting Atkinson introduced as a potential risk to her. Constant tension!
TITLE: Where D'You Go Bernadette?
Bernadette Fox lives in Seattle, with a workaholic husband who spends all his time at Microsoft and a teenage daughter, Bee, who attends an expensive private school. Bernadette is mildly agoraphobic and quite antisocial.
Apart from Bee, she only likes Manjula, the personal assistant in India to whom she's outsourced most of her life. She hates Seattle, and she especially hates the parents of Bee's schoolmates, who despise her right back.
Throughout most of the book, Bernadette's story is told through all kinds of documents, from emails to bills, from a live-blog to doctors' reports. We only really understand why later, and when we do, what was hilarious, sharp satire becomes gripping and heart-felt, in addition to entertaining.
I read this one literally in one sitting, and it's been ages since I've done that. It's a great story, and I especially appreciated that at its core is a female eccentric genius, and that rather than demonise her, Semple makes us understand her.
MY GRADE: This one's an A-.
If the other 3 are anything like this, then this is an incredibly strong line-up. I would be happy for any of these to win, although happiest if it was Bring Up The Bodies or Life After Life. Those two were particularly brilliant.