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Firing on all cylinders: Orange longlist shows power of women writers

The books on this year's Orange Prize longlist tackle some difficult subject matter.

It might be the UK’s only annual book award for women’s writing, but the Orange Prize for Fiction – 16 years old this year – is anything but parochial. The longlist announced last week revealed a refreshing range of novels from across the world, from the established, Irish-born-Canadian Booker Prize nominee Emma Donoghue to the debut novel of the Indian poet Tishani Doshi.

Although perhaps one might expect the list to be dominated by British authors, there’s also work from the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, the British Nigerian author Lola Shoneyin and the hotly tipped new Serbian-American novelist Téa Obreht. So, after fielding tired allegations of sexism throughout its history, it’s good to see the prize remaining true to its initial mission statement: to celebrate “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing throughout the world”.

The sheer breadth of stories and styles on the 20-strong list also seems to have put paid to the idea that the prize somehow – as AS Byatt complained last year – only reinforces the idea of a feminine subject matter. “There is a scope to this list,” said the judge and BBC presenter Susanna Reid at the launch on Wednesday. “If anyone has a preconception about what a woman writes about, or what a woman’s novel is, I think that this will blow it away. These novels cross continents, cross generations, cross decades, and there is no subject that these writers are not willing to tackle.”

Including the story of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian who kept his daughter in a dungeon for 24 years, which was the jumping off point for Donoghue’s brilliant Man Booker-shortlisted Room. The best-selling book on this list by some considerable distance, it’s a moot point whether it would have been such a success had it been written by a man. When The National spoke to Donoghue late last year, she was at pains to point out that this was more a story about the challenges of motherhood (the novel is seen through the eyes of a five-year-old boy imprisoned with his mother) than a lurid thriller based on a monstrous criminal. Her “Fritzl” doesn’t even appear in the entire second half of the book.

Still, Room is not exactly easy reading, and the Orange Prize list is notable this year for the difficult subjects its authors tackle. Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, is, as the title suggests, an exploration of polygamy in her native ­Nigeria. But Shoneyin has a lightness of touch – this is a hugely comic debut – that makes this an endearing rather than a harrowing read. And while the Costa-shortlisted Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty – another book that should be in the final reckoning – might sound heartbreaking (it’s the story of a mother trying to cope with the sudden death of her young daughter), it swiftly moves into gripping thriller territory. Even Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud, which deals with mental illness in excruciating detail, has an exuberance and vivacity.

“There are difficult subjects tackled with incredible sensitivity,” added Reid, “but there are also unexpected moments of pleasure and joy and humour and intimacy. They’re found in the least expected places. Even though some of the subjects are difficult, they are handled in such a way that makes the books extremely readable and unexpectedly pleasurable.”

It’s a measure of how diverse the prize continues to be that there are also books on the longlist which don’t take on such tough topics, but are nevertheless expertly and joyously written. Tishani Doshi has fictionalised the marriage of her Welsh mother and Indian father in The Pleasure Seekers, using it as a starting point for a charming comedy taking in four generations of Patels. Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie is a rollicking Victorian adventure story, “a voyage of adventure” as she put it in The National earlier this year. Every literary prize longlist not obsessed with taking itself too seriously should surely have a story with alligator-wrestling at its heart.

To that end, it’s great to see the American writer Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, set on a ’gator-wrestling theme-park in Florida, up against the more serious beauty of Aminatta Forna’s exploration of relationships amid a Sierra Leone torn apart by repression and war in The Memory of Love.

Books like Swamplandia! certainly meet the Orange Prize’s “originality and accessibility” criteria. As for “excellence”, it’s interesting that the prize seems to have elevated itself beyond the tokenism of celebrating writing by women who otherwise might have been missed – even though there are nine debut novelists on the longlist.

This prize, then, is simply for good writing, hence the presence of Jennifer Egan’s much-praised A Visit From the Goon Squad, which won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle award last week in America. Nicole Krauss, too, as something of a literary darling in America, hardly needs the oxygen of publicity for her new book Great House – but the ambition of her third novel, a staggeringly good reflection on loss and memory – deserves credit. And the Orange judges certainly didn’t seem to be put off by the hype surrounding Obreht, the youthful Serbian-American novelist. Rightly so; The Tiger’s Wife is an extravagant but sorrowful tale of war in the Balkans. Aboulela, too, has been recognised before, but Lyrics Alley is a seriously good epic set in 1950s Sudan.

So it’ll be fascinating to see who makes the shortlist on April 12 – and of course, who goes on to win in June. It’s hardly revolutionary to suggest that it might be Donoghue – Room, one of The National’s best books of 2010, is one of those rare, elusive beasts, a well-written, best-selling paperback with heart, soul, and something to say. But the beauty of this particular longlist is that it’s so strong. There are satisfying, deserving and sometimes downright exceptional books. And does it matter that they’re by women? Actually, not at all.

 

• For more on the longlist, go to www.orangeprize.co.uk.

 

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