How reading a quarter century of Women’s Prize winners got me through lockdown.
In late February, whilst scrolling on my phone during a night feed, I saw a social media post. Read Women, it said. I do, I thought. But on a closer look, it wasn’t just good advice, but a challenge, the #ReadingWomenChallenge. And woman, do I love me a challenge!
As part of the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the hashtag #ReadingWomen is being used to promote reading plenty of books by women, and specifically the 24 women whose books have won the Women’s Prize over the last twenty four years. Read twenty-four books in four months? I’m in, I thought.
First up, I inventoried what I had read and what I hadn’t. Made notes of what I needed to buy or beg to borrow. I’m a voracious reader and, whilst I aim to read work of a wide spectrum of authors, my reading list tends to be slightly weighted towards women authors. So I was fairly horrified to discover I had read only five of the twenty-four books. How had I missed all of them at the time of publication? What had I been doing? What had I been reading? I found a few on my bookshelves, unread, hidden amongst the sprawling mass of my TBR shelf, that seems to grow no matter how much I read.
Then, a short few weeks before the reality of Covid-19 hit, I went on a family holiday to the North East. One of our little jaunts included a visit to Barter Books in Alnwick, an absolute treasure trove of books. (If you love books and haven’t been, it’s a bucket-list day trip, plus the cafe there does the best ginger cake I’ve ever tasted). I pulled my list from my diary and hunted down six further titles within their stacked bookshelves. That gave me a final ten books to purchase; being on maternity leave, spending that much money in one fell swoop felt a little indulgent; then I received an email from Waterstones which offered me 25% off all previous Women’s Prize Winners- so I went for it (I’ve just checked and that offer is still on- so go for it!). The final books arrived by post on Friday 13th March. A timely delivery: due to there being vulnerable people in our household, my family decided to isolate on Sunday 15th. The challenge was on.
I decided to read the books in chronological order but, because there is so much I want to do with this short life, not to re-read those I had previously read. Reading in this order had a very interesting effect. With each book I read, I was not only comparing the book to what I had read previously, considering the themes and style and how there were possible trends or threads that related to what was going on in the world, but I also found myself reflecting on what I was doing at the time each book was published. Why hadn’t I read that book then? What was I doing and how might the book have impacted me then that was different from how it did now?
As I read each book, I considered what big events had happened both on the world stage and in my own life. I turn forty this year, and so it could be argued that these books chart the span of my adult life. The list showcases books that were published over the course of my GSCEs and A-Levels, through moving away from home, living in Australia, Oxford, London and New York. Through my graduating from drama school and carving out a career as an actor whilst waiting tables, running a shop and studying nutrition and producing events, plays and short-films. These twenty-four books were somewhere on a bookshelf whilst I navigated three big loves and the following three big heart-breaks. They were being published through the Spice Girls forming and breaking up, through New Labour and the Brexit preamble, through the fall of the Twin Towers, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and the biggest refugee crisis of my life-time. And although I read only a few of them at their time of publication, these books chart it all. Despite many of them being set before 1996, thematically they have provided a time-travelling adventure through the years 1996 to 2020.
There is a fair amount of international travel involved too; through the pages of these books, I visited Canada, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Italy, Poland, Australia, and many other countries. I was interested to note that the most frequently visited countries were the USA and Ireland, though Canada was a close third. These literary explorations of far flung destinations didn’t quite make up for the trips to Copenhagen and Amsterdam that Covid put the kibosh on, but what journeys I’ve been on whilst I’ve been absolutely nowhere!
Although I love to read, reading so many books over the last four months hasn’t been easy. My daughter was only three months old when we locked down. I’m a first time-mum and a solo mother by choice, so it has been a pretty steep learning curve as to what solo-parenting actually involves: a lot of reliance on family support and, greatly reduced time to myself. But not having a partner does have its upsides; once my daughter is asleep, I do have the chance to read or write undisturbed and I’ve discovered that time spent feeding is enhanced by having a book in hand rather than scrolling on my phone. I’d also say that setting myself a reading challenge during a global pandemic was both helpful, in providing a distraction from everything, and unhelpful, in putting an unnecessary pressure on myself at a time of great stress. In the early days of lockdown, as many people have noted, it seemed almost impossible to read. Between checking news sites, social media and worrying, my attention span was shot. But when I did manage to tear myself away from Twitter and Tiger King (though tbh that was pretty easy - I hated it), I would find the world of the books I was reading were often eerily reflecting the world’s discourse. Not only that, it was so fascinating to read these books with the backdrop of the world we are living in and the (don’t say it!) unprecedented times (sigh!) we are all living through. From loneliness and isolation, to migration, race and identity politics, it was all there in the Women’s Prize winners’ back catalogue. Many of these winning books capture the struggle of the human race with these same issues, both personally and globally - a fact I found surprising, depressing and yet strangely comforting. That literature that has commanded enough attention to win an internationally lauded literary prize would be dealing with universal themes, is perhaps unsurprising but it still gave me pause for reflection that the themes ran like consistent threads throughout such different books, written over the course of quarter of a century.
Alongside the discussions of big ideas such as belonging, family, love, conflict, sex and gender, a subject that made a regular appearance in the books was disease; okay, maybe I went looking for it, but it was definitely there! It was strange to realise that during my life, for me at least, the idea of a global pandemic had only ever been a notion or a fun concept for a block-buster movie until February 2020, yet, on reading these books, pandemics and illness were mentioned frequently - cholera, Spanish flu, Black Death, Yellow Fever, polio all made an appearance, with a frequency which made me realise I am lucky that Covid-19 has been the only virulent disease that has really impacted on my life thus far.
Another surprise: how many of these books, which are all written by women, tell a story from a male point of view. In fact twelve of the twenty-four books are told either fully or partially from a man’s perspective. Women writing with the male gaze is a fascinating subject to me but I find it interesting that the narrative of so many from this list of books should be from the perspective of men. I don’t hold a particular judgement on this, it just gave me pause for thought.
That is what the experience of reading all these books in a short period of time has been overall: thought-provoking. It has been an opportunity to reflect on what makes a prize-winning book, what I particularly enjoy in a novel and how every story can offer the reader something, even if it isn’t to their taste as a whole.
I had my favourites, those which didn’t resonate with me as much - and a couple that I just found bloody difficult. The Women’s Prize is currently encouraging us to vote for our favourite previous winner and that, for me, was easy: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from 2007 is an astonishing novel. It is a lesson in history and writing that pulses with humanity, love and the horror of war; I’d be remiss if I voted for anything other than that. But were you to ask me to choose my second, third or fourth favourite I would be more conflicted. Would it be The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville from 2001? A comforting, funny love story that is quite different from any I have ever read. Or maybe Larry’s Party by Carol Shields from 1998? An everyman tale with exquisite structure and a gentle pace that lures you in and leaves you wrung-out yet satisfied. Or perhaps Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie from 2018? This gives such a balanced and heartbreaking personal point of view to a subject that is so often politicised. But what about On Beauty by Zadie Smith from 2006? Or Bel Canto by Ann Patchett from 2002? Or Small Island by Andrea Levy from 2004? Or We Need To Talk About Kevin? Or A Crime in the Neighbourhood? Or last year’s astonishing An American Marriage which I read last year as I balanced the book on my baby bump, crying behind my sunglasses? The back catalogue of winners is quite honestly an embarrassment of riches. I implore you to jump in and read more, if not all, of these interesting books.
What’s next on my TBR pile? Well, I have to admit the stack has grown somewhat during lock-down (can anyone shed light on why it is that I feel particularly compelled to buy books and skin-care during this time?!) and I’ve got a pretty wonderful summer of reading ahead of me. But seeing as I’ve had such a good time reading the winners of the Women’s Prize from years past, it only makes sense to crack on with this year's short list. The prize is going to be announced on 9th September, so that gives me a little over a week to read each book. It could be tricky as I continue to navigate motherhood and writing in this new-quasi-locked-down world, but then, I do love me a challenge!
For more on previous Women’s Prize winners, to vote for your favourite and check out this year’s shortlist visit https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/
For quick reference here are the previous winners & this year’s shortlist. I recommend buying from your local independent bookshop, Hive.co.uk and Waterstones as your first ports of call.
1996: A Spell of Winter - Helen Dunmore.
1997: Fugitive Pieces - Anne Michaels.
1998: Larry's Party - Carol Shields.
1999: A Crime in the Neighbourhood - Suzanne Berne
2000: When I Lived in Modern Times - Linda Grant
2001: The Idea of Perfection - Kate Grenville
2002: Bel Canto - Ann Patchett
2003: Property - Valerie Martin
2004: Small Island - Andrea Levy
2005: We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver
2006: On Beauty - Zadie Smith
2007: Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2008: The Road Home - Rose Tremain
2009: Home - Marilynne Robinson
2010: The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver
2011: The Tiger's Wife - Téa Obreht
2012: The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller
2013: May We Be Forgiven - A. M. Homes
2014: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing - Eimear McBride
2015: How To be Both - Ali Smith
2016: The Glorious Heresies - Lisa McInerney
2017: The Power - Naomi Alderman
2018: Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie
2019: An American Marriage - Tayari Jones
2020 Shortlist: Girl, Woman, Other - Bernadine Evaristo, Hamnet - Maggie O’Farrell, A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes, Dominicana - Angie Cruz, The Mirror and the Light - Hilary Mantel, Weather - Jenny Offill