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Women's Prize for Fiction 2021

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

Riverhead Books, 2020

by Jo Szilagyi

“There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belonged somewhere if you acted like you did.”

So concludes Stella, the ‘vanishing half’ of the identical twin Vignes sisters from Brit Bennett’s acclaimed novel of the same name––a harrowing tale of the implications of her passing as white in post-Jim Crow America and the cost of making a new identity, not just for her, but for generations of her family.

Consistently ranked as one of the year’s best on book review lists, The Vanishing Half debuted at number one on The New York Times best-seller list and stayed there for 38 weeks. The reasons why aren’t surprising: it’s a well-paced page turner, a mystery of a missing woman (always a good bet for sales), and an attention-grabbing premise––not only Stella’s decision, but an entire town that breeds out Blackness, and another woman’s choice (Stella’s sister, Desiree, in fact) to defy them both.

The Vanishing Half brings to mind another highly commended novel about two sisters, published four years earlier: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Spanning three continents and seven generations, Homegoing follows Esi, who is sold into slavery on Africa’s Gold Coast, and Effia, who becomes a slave trader’s wife. Homegoing is, in a way, more ambitious and it’s perhaps Bennett’s focus that makes it the more successful of the two.

Do high-concept novels sacrifice literary style for the story’s sake? If I had one criticism, it would be that The Vanishing Half seems like it was planned to be a television series from the outset (HBO acquired the rights for a limited series just one month after publication, with Bennett named as an Executive Producer.) The Vanishing Half has a great pitch, a compellingly written story with poignant ‘beats,’ but what distinguishes it as literature?


Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020

by Annabel Rogers

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a novel that aims to reconnect us with our own world. It centres on Piranesi, a character who is simultaneously childish and ancient-seeming. He lives in reverential symbiosis with the ruined, tidal House that is the extent of his universe, an apparently classical structure almost with a life of its own. The novel’s opening pages are frighteningly obscure — we are thrust into a world that has few recognisable labels, no frame of comparison. Despite its timelessness, we learn that this world is actually just adjacent to our own; the mystery deepens when Piranesi discovers an empty crisp packet, hears a throng of Earthly voices in an alcove. His curiosity about who he is and what he’s doing here begins to grow, as our own curiosity burns brighter. Nevertheless, it is a cold world. We long for the familiarity of our own world against it — and this is Clarke’s greatest victory. She constructs a universe of intricate beauty in which we cannot help but feel cold and lonely. Piranesi, by contrast, sees it as his home, exists within it, and looks after it as it looks after him. There’s a lesson to be learnt here — not necessarily an environmental one, but a general one. A ‘not taking the familiarity of daily life for granted’ one. It’s an original, fundamental triumph.

Unsettled Ground

Claire Fuller

Fig Tree, 2021

by Katie Kirkpatrick

Unsettled Ground is a strange, bleak novel. Set in rural Oxfordshire, the book follows twins Jeanie and Julius in the wake of their mother Dot’s death; the family live reclusively in a cottage with no electricity, and Fuller tracks how their unusual living conditions affect every aspect of the mourning process. As the details of Dot’s life come to light, the twins discover that their mother may not have been the person they thought she was, and that some of the facts they considered most basic may not be true.

While the novel is a kind of mystery, it doesn’t twist and turn like a typical thriller. Instead, its twists feel like coming across something unexpected at the end of a winding country path: there is no spectacle, only a brief moment of realisation before the story continues on its way. Fuller maintains an impressive level of control over the narrative throughout: she moves seamlessly between perspectives and settings, never giving any one character too much power. The result is subdued and claustrophobic, but in a manner that’s clearly deliberate, reflecting the insular atmosphere of the village where the novel is set.

As the world emerges from a year and a half of isolation and quiet, I wonder how much appetite there is for stories like Unsettled Ground. The novel feels trapped in one place, and almost anachronistic: its dark take on the farmland tragedy feels reminiscent almost of the likes of Thomas Hardy novels. There is no fun, no humour, no excitement. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but there’s no denying that Unsettled Ground is the work of a skilled writer.

Transcendent Kingdom

Yaa Gyasi

Viking Books, 2021

by Lucy Thynne

Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up to her impressive debut, Homegoing, takes the shape of Transcendent Kingdom. It is a novel that circles in and out of the past, following the childhood and adult life of the narrator Gifty, a talented PhD candidate at Stanford University studying the reward-seeking behaviour of mice. Gifty’s focus on obsessive behaviours is not coincidental: she is desperate to understand the opioid addiction of her brother, Nana, which festered until it destroyed his life. Her mother is also dealing with the trauma, albeit in her own way, turning up on Gifty’s doorstep, silent. She has not spoken in months. To Gifty, she is a turned back, an impenetrable wall.

If the premise of Transcendent Kingdom sounds bleak, readers can take comfort in Gyasi’s splendid, all-encompassing prose. To spend an hour with this novel is to spend an hour in the thoughts of a very real human mind; Gyasi traces Gifty’s ruminations through from science to the tension it raises with her devout upbringing in the Christian church; from her mother’s favouritism of her brother to her own assurance, her own indulgence in aloneness. This is a self-conscious narrator, though, one aware to the fine line between being lonely and being independent. Gyasi does well to show how a character can mask their grief in a seemingly functioning life. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah here, but it is clear to any reader that Yaa Gyasi is striking out a voice of her own.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

Cherie Jones

Tinder Press, 2021

by Liz Murphy

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Cherie Jones’s debut, gets its title from a cautionary folk tale. Wilma regularly spun this yarn to her young granddaughter Lala, the moral of which is to avoid the pitfalls of disobedience and the temptation of darkness lest you end up maimed by the monster that lives there.

Mostly set in Barbados during the sultry summer of 1984, the novel’s axis is Lala, now eighteen, pregnant with her first child and married to the hulking Adan. They live on the edge of the affluent resort Baxter’s Beach, and much of the novel’s action takes place in the impoverished places that lurk in the shadows of the paradisiacal island. Over the course of the narrative things go from bad to worse for Lala. Jones’s focus on domestic violence and trauma that is passed down generations like a mutated gene – it transpires Lala’s mother, who she scarcely knew, was in a similarly violent marriage – is centrally explored through Lala and Adan’s relationship. Yet through flashbacks, the novel’s aperture is deftly widened, and comes to encompass a broader cast of characters: a beach gigolo; a rich tourist’s widow; and a bungling detective on the case of a man shot dead during a botched burglary at a beachfront villa.

It is an unflinching, relentless novel and Jones won’t allow us to look away. Her penchant for repetition renders the narrative almost uncomfortably airless, bringing the characters so close their claustrophobia becomes your own. The novel circles back to the grandmother’s cautionary tale and as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett points out, it can now be seen as a metaphorical question: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House asks how a woman can make a life for herself when her body is so frequently beleaguered.

No One Is Talking About This

Patricia Lockwood

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021

by Liz Murphy

‘This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?’ wonders the unnamed narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s debut No One Is Talking About This. A novel absurd, comical, and poignant by turns, it is preoccupied with the question of what it feels like to live online. It follows the narrator, a writer made famous for her viral tweets (namely ‘Can a dog be twins?’), whose entire existence is absorbed by the internet – or what she terms ‘the portal’. Lockwood’s dazzling, almost poetic tone comes from her flair for compressed prose and a fluency in the language of the zeitgeist (much like her narrator, she initially rose to prominence on Twitter).

The first half of No One Is Talking About This reads like a love letter to the endless scroll: largely comprised of pithy, two-to-three sentence increments, the fragments bear no logical or chronological relation to each other. Sporadically thoughts, jokes, memes, questions, anecdotes pass across the page, pass like a social media feed. This amorphous, directionless space – is the portal even a space? – is abruptly pierced halfway through by a distinctly offline event. The narrator’s younger sister is pregnant and ‘something has gone wrong’. The child has Proteus syndrome, a condition that has caused the connective tissue of her skull to grow beyond correct proportions; life expectancy beyond infancy is out of the question.

Though the narrator warns us the child is not a metaphor, her biologically untrammeled existence is counterpoised by the portal’s similarly ubiquitous being. These unconstrained forms underscore the novel’s concerns of where the boundaries of the on- and off line selves and lives lie. To Lockwood, it seems what it is like to live online as an individual is a question inseparable from what the existence of the internet is: ‘gradually [the portal] had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.’

Art by Izzy Fergusson.


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