The Women’s Prize has really gained in profile in the last few years. I think it’s actually been better since it stopped being sponsored by, first, Orange and then Bailey’s. By calling itself simply ‘The Women’s Prize’ it seems to have been able to be truer to its purpose. It also seems not to have suffered from some of the criticisms that other literary prizes have attracted around diversity. I make it my intention to read the Booker Prize shortlist each autumn; perhaps I should do the same for the The Women’s Prize.
This year, I have read three of the six titles on the shortlist, although one of these, Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle, was shortlisted for the Booker last year too, so I was one step ahead for a change! I have already written about how much I loved that particular book.
When the shortlist was announced, my book club decided we’d read The Sentence Louise Erdrich. Erdrich is an American author. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her novel The Night Watchman. I know very little about her, except that she has Native American heritage on her mother’s side, and that this cultural inheritance influences her writing.
The Sentence is a complex book. The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who is convicted of drug smuggling and given a prison sentence. She has had a difficult upbringing (in common with a disproportionate number of Native American and African American young people, an issue which underpins many of the novel’s themes), but during her incarceration she discovers literature. When she is released she marries Pollux, the man who arrested her, a kind of tribal law enforcement officer, and gets a steady job in a bookstore. Her life is good, on track, and she and Pollux live very happily.
All that changes on All Soul’s Eve in 2019 when a former customer of the bookshop, a cantankerous elderly woman called Flora, dies. Tookie is convinced that Flora is haunting the bookstore, more as a poltergeist than a friendly ghost, and the impact this has on Tookie’s mental state is mirrored by wider social events which seem to signify a kind of societal breakdown. The novel is set in Minneapolis (where Erdrich herself lives so she will have been close to events) and the murder of George Floyd in 2020 is a totemic moment that causes grief and chaos. Then there is the Covid pandemic, the lockdowns, the visceral fear of disease and the social isolation that it leads to. Tookie and Pollux at least have each other (plus Pollux’s daughter Hetta and her baby son, who come to live with them), but it is clear that this is a period during which the things they have thus far taken for granted are being swept away.
The Sentence is a powerful novel which explores many important issues, but I cannot say that I really ‘enjoyed’ it. It is one of the first ‘pandemic novels’ I have read and it will have been written when the world was still in the grip of Covid, not really knowing how or if we would get out of it. That comes through strongly in the novel, the sense of entering an unknown state, whilst also observing things falling apart. The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder will also have been quite raw and the sense of history repeating itself, of lack of justice for minorities and fear of the police, a sense of social structures collapsing, is expressed in Tookie’s despair. For me, though, the novel feels a little under-cooked. I’m not sure many of us have fully processed the events of 2019-21 and the novel seems to flounder a bit on not really having a clear direction.
My feelings about another of the shortlisted books, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss could not be more different. It too deals with a pressing social issue, mental illness, but it deals with it through, for me, a much stronger narrative. Martha is unwell. She has her first bout of depression, or ‘episode’ we might call it, when she is seventeen. Her family might be described by some as bohemian, dysfuctional by others. Her parents are artists, her father a poet and her mother a sculptor, and neither is especially successful. Her mother, Celia, was brought up largely by her older sister Winsome, after their mother died. Winsome married a rich man, lives in Belgravia, and largely supports Celia and her family. Martha has one sister, Ingrid, to whom she is very close.
Every year, the whole family gathers for Christmas in Belgravia, and included in their number is Patrick, a boarding school friend of one of Martha’s cousins. Patrick’s mother is dead and his father lives abroad and appears not to care very much about his son. Patrick is one of the few people able to empathise and show genuine care when Martha is first unwell, that Christmas in Belgravia, and we later learn that he has been in love with her ever since. Martha makes a very brief and disastrous marriage to wealthy and obnoxious financier Jonathan, who bolts at the very first sign of her illness. Later she will marry Patrick (not a spoiler since the book begins with what is described as the end of her marriage to him after Martha’s fortieth birthday). Their life together is entirely dominated by her illness, which is misdiagnosed, misunderstood, mismanaged, and incorrectly medicated. Eventually, Martha receives a new diagnosis from a new psychiatrist – significantly, the name of her condition is left blank. This is not a book about a condition, it is a book about how mental illness tears lives apart, and not just the lives of those who have the condition. Martha is prescribed medication which finally seems to work, but when Martha seems to be getting ‘fixed’, her life actually begins to fall apart.
This book is an astonishing account of a severe mental illness from the point of view of the person experiencing it. We see the world entirely through Martha’s eyes for most of the book, until the final, correct, diagnosis is made. As the fog clears for Martha, the experience of being a loved one of someone with a mental illness, partner, sibling, parent, is given air time. It is astonishing and I have not read anything quite like it before. Meg Mason writes concisely and brilliantly, with a style that is both spare and completely exposing. She also has the most extraordinary dark humour – the trauma is so deep that you do actually need the laugh out loud moments. It reminded me a bit of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in that respect. The characters are powerfully drawn and I loved the exploration of the relationship between Martha and her sister Ingrid – brilliant, comic, intensely loving and brutally honest.
I don’t know much about the remaining books on the shortlist, but I would be delighted to see Meg Mason or Maggie Shipstead win – both their books rank in the top five titles I have read in the last twelve months.
So, Sorrow and Bliss highly recommended, The Sentence, I am more lukewarm about. You can watch a live stream of the prize-giving event and the announcement by following the link here.