The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will crown its 2015 winner tomorrow night, and I’ve read all of this year’s six shortlisted books as part of the We Love This Book Club at work. You can see my mini reviews below, see what other people reading the list thought here, and watch a video of me and my colleagues talking about our favourites and trying to guess the winner in the video at the end of this post.
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Writers writing about writing seems a little self-indulgent, but I was pleasantly surprised by Outline, which is intimate and nuanced, and very, very clever. I loved that really, it’s a book about the stories everyone has, and the way they tell them to their advantage. That those stories are told to a woman who is trying to piece herself back together and whose story we are never fully told (but is probably the most interesting) makes this book an intriguing read. I found myself scouring the ages for clues to the narrator’s tale, but it’s the way she reacts and absorbs the stories that others are telling her that is just as important, and just as moving.
The Bees by Laline Paull
I confess, I didn’t see before I started reading this novel quite how it would work. It’s about bees and is almost exclusively set in a hive, and I wouldn’t ordinarily pick it up (I intensely dislike all bees, wasps, flies, spiders, and so on). Yet in Flora 717 Paull created a character I found myself invested in. Flora’s emotional ups and downs are the most interesting parts of the book, as she struggles with the love she feels for her (illegal in bee world) children, and the secrets of the hive. I started this book trying to look at it as a metaphor for human life, which was the wrong thing to do. Once I treated it like a story about a female struggling to find her place, everything slotted into place and I enjoyed the journey.
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
This is a clever book, weaving a series of what look like unconnected events and stories into an unexpected climax. It’s densely packed, covering class, race, caste, imperialism, art and war, and has moments that left me wide-eyed. Shamsie’s descriptions of the bazaar are particularly vivid, and I could imagine all the different streets the characters traversed each day. However, I felt a bit like the character Qayyum Gul felt – frustrated and expecting and wanting more. I really, really wanted to love this book, but it just didn’t give my heart an emotional tug.
How to be Both by Ali Smith
I first read this novel when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and was impressed. I’m still impressed – it’s a good story, cleverly written. Not only has Smith put together a book you want to read, she’s also pushing at form. But it never feels laboured, and I never felt that the artistry of the writing overtook the story. I’d love to go back in time and read the book in a different order (I read the modern day section first), but I’ll never be able to recreate the surprise of reading How to be Both for the first time. Smith is a genius writer, and if she wins the award, it will be well deserved.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
I’ve never read anything by Tyler before, although I know her reputation. Having read A Spool of Blue Thread, I know for myself now that that reputation is well-deserved. I loved this book, and it’s my favourite of the six on the shortlist. I loved the slightly dreamy nature of it, the complex characters, and also the complete normalcy. A Spool of Blue Thread is a book about a family like many others, but Tyler’s insight and her absolutely beautiful writing make their story fascinating in a way it might not have been in the hands of another author. I will definitely be reading more by Tyler in the near future.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
There seems to be a theme among the books on this year’s shortlist – women struggling to find their place in societies that have either changed, or are refusing to accept they have changed. That’s certainly the case in The Paying Guests, where Frances is chafing against being forced back in to the roles she, and many other women of society, played before the First World War, even though she’s had a taste of independence. Combine that with a romance, crime and debates about class, and Waters’ book is an absorbing tale that had me hooked. It’s a little on the long side for what it is, and I wasn’t in love with the ending, but it’s a great book.