Spring marks the opening of Book Awards season. The literati’s glam melees began this week with the announcement of the Women’s Prize longlist.
I have long been a fan of the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize). In 1996 I read the first Orange Prize winner, Helen Dunmore’s haunting novel, A Spell of Winter. She became one of my favorite writers, and I followed her eclectic career till her death in 2017. My favorite of Dunmore’s books is Counting the Stars, a novel about the relationship between the Roman poet Catullus and his lover, Clodia – based on his poems.
Many literary prize fans read only the prize winners, but I generally prefer the less-celebrated books on the the longlist. And this year I am excited by what seems to be an encouraging inclusion and a new trend: Natalie Haynes’s Stone Blind, a retelling of the Medusa myth, has made the longlist.
Aside from Haynes’s background in classics and all-round intelligence, why is Stone Blind significant? Well, the retold myth has become an increasingly important women’s fiction genre. Walk into a bookstore and you are likely to find a table devoted to retold myths with titles like Clytemnestra, Cassandra, and Circe. These feminist reinterpretations mine the lives of goddesses and heroines of Greek myths – and myths from other countries – and spin ancient culture from a woman’s point-of-view.
I am reading and enjoying Stone Blind.
And you will find the Women’s Prize longlist at the end of this post.
HAVE YOU READ C. H.B. KITCHIN? For years I had tattered paperback copies of The Death of My Aunt and The Death of an Uncle on my bedside table. And then I discovered that Kitchin, a neglected novelist who is remembered mainly for his mysteries, also wrote literary fiction.
I was lucky to find a copy of his beautifully-written novel, A Short Walk in Williams Park. Kitchin is not much read anymore; he was not very popular in the 20th century, either. In the preface to this slight, graceful novel, L. P. Hartley writes, “Fiction writing was his great love and his disappointment. Somehow he lacked ‘the common touch,’ and the reviewers’ constant encomiums did not console him for it.”
A Short Walk in Williams Park is a decidedly odd little book: think Barbara Pym, diabolically mingled with Henry Green and Anita Brookner. The protagonist, Francis Norton, an elderly bachelor who has retired from business, enjoys long walks in London parks. He is a keen observer of people, but one day, without meaning to eavesdrop, he overhears a desperate conversation between two lovers, Mirrie and Edward. Edward is married and cheating on his wife; he and Mirrie have little time together, but often meet in Williams Park. Through an odd series of circumstances, including finding three pages of Mirrie’s diary in the park, Francis becomes an advisor to the two lovers.
Much of this novel is cleverly narrated in letters and other documents. There is also a mystery. Edward’s wife has a rich cousin who dies of an overdose of “Traversinal, a dangerous drug of the barbiturate family.” Where did she get it? Was she murdered, or was it an accidental overdose?
Fascinating and a bit weird: I am now a Kitchin fan.
A NEW EDITION OF NANCY HALE’S THE PRODIGAL WOMEN. Did I inspire the revival of Nancy Hale? It is just possible. In 2010, I wrote at a defunct blog: “The book I am really keen on at the moment is Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women, and you’ll be hearing much more about it. Think of the first time you read The Group, Valley of the Dolls, Daughters of the New World, or The Women’s Room, only 10 times better. This is a perfect Spring Break book.”
The Library of America is publishing a new edition of The Prodigal Women in May. My 1980s Plume paperback version is tattered and held together with scotch-tape, so I do deserve a new copy. Thank you, Library of America, for reviving Nancy Hale! LOA has also published a selection of Hale’s short stories.
AND HERE IS The Women’s Prize Longlist 2023
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Demon Copperfield by Barbara Kingsolver
The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie
Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh
Pod by Laline Paul
The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
Glory by NoViolet Bulawalyo