Feminist retellings of history dominate 2019 Women's prize shortlist

From Pat Barker’s reworking of Greek myth to Anna Burns’s take on the Troubles, the finalists turn familiar stories on their heads

Novels reassessing the stories of women in history, from Pat Barker’s retelling of the Iliad to Anna Burns’s Booker-winning story of a teenage girl during the Troubles, dominate this year’s Women’s prize for fiction shortlist.

Barker, the British Booker prize-winning author famous for her Regeneration trilogy, is in the running for the £30,000 award with The Silence of the Girls, which tells the story of Briseis, a princess who is made a slave to Achilles, the man who killed her husband and brothers. Greek myth and legend are also retold by previous winner Madeline Miller in Circe, a twist on the story of the witch who seduces Homer’s Odysseus.

Anna Burns. Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize
Anna Burns. Winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“The two tropes perpetually given to us in myths and stories are the beautiful, captive princess, and the evil witch who is too ugly for a man and therefore sits around trying to kill men. Here, you get those completely turned on their heard and see they are living women, that the patriarchal system has written their stories for them, and what the truth could be,” said chair of the judges Kate Williams.

“Suddenly we’re asking where are the women, what do the women think about this, which was ignored to a degree even 20 years ago. Anna Burns’s Milkman is doing it, too – the Troubles have been heavily covered but no one really talked about what the women were doing. We all know that history is written by the victors. These authors are pointing out these victors are men, even if women are on the winning side, because their stories have been written for them.”

All three stories are set in the past, but Williams was clear about their relevance to the world today, as the #MeToo movement forces a reassessment of the way in which women are both seen and see their own lives. “We are changing. We are saying that women’s perceptions and histories, even in a very masculine environment such as war, are important,” she said.

“What really struck us in Barker and Miller’s books is what hasn’t changed. Women’s bodies are still being used as collateral, women are still being attacked, the rape of women is still a military tool.”

FEB-2018_LONDON: REVIEW - Diana Evans, novelist, journalist and critic. (Photograph by Graeme Robertson)
Diana Evans, shortlisted for Ordinary People. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The shortlist is completed with three very different novels: debut Nigerian novelist Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a dark comedy set in Lagos; Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, about two disaffected middle-aged couples and their families; and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, about a young African American couple who are ripped apart when the husband is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Williams called the lineup “fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating … We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created.”

Books from the 16-book longlist that did not make the cut include Sally Rooney’s bestseller Normal People and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, the first non-binary transgender author to be nominated for the prize since it was founded in 1996.

Williams, who is professor of history at the University of Reading, is joined on the judging panel by journalists Arifa Akbar and Dolly Alderton, campaigner and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein, and digital entrepreneur Sarah Wood. The winner of the award will be announced on 5 June.

Women’s prize for fiction shortlist 2019

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Milkman by Anna Burns
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Circe by Madeline Miller

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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