The judges are given the key criteria for the Prize – "accessibility, originality and excellence in writing by women". That's fairy broad. It makes predicting the winner pretty difficult. Each book is undoubtedly excellent. But which is best? It depends who you ask and what they like.
Over the last 6 weeks, I've been on a mission to read them all. It's the first prize shortlist that I've ever read in its entirety (prior to the announcement of the winner at least) so I have never truly been able to objectively view a shortlist. I honestly think this is an incredible selection of titles. It's truly diverse, featuring locations in India, Iceland, Nigeria, America, Ireland, Russia, Germany and The Netherlands. The authors themselves are American, Irish (x2), Australian, Nigerian and Indian-American- so even if the reader (like me) is not especially well travelled, this year's shortlist offers some fascinating looks into life in other countries and other times.
So who's going to win? And if they are going to win, what's likely to edge it for them? This is what I reckon...
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent- (full review here)
If Burial Rites wins, it will be down to the accessibility of this novel. Broad enough to appeal to Nordic Noir fans, as well as crime fiction and historical fiction readers, it offers something appealing to all at the same time that it offers something perhaps less frequently experienced in these genres. It's beautifully written, and frames a tragic story of loyalty and persecution with some incredible and original settings.
If it misses out, it will be because whilst it is an engaging, tragic read, on the whole it is not really doing anything enormously new.
A Girl is A Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride- (full review here)
If it wins, it will be for reinventing the modern novel. Its originality is staggering and its fragmented, jerky prose (is it even prose??) creates such an immediate narrative effect that it's an unforgettable reading experience. The narrator does not tell her story, she shows it. It's brave, unique and incredibly personal and the unnamed narrator is such an arresting, tragic character.
If it loses out, it will be because the style (which is so unique and effective) could alienate some readers, and as accessibility is one of the three things to look out for, this could prove a stumbling block.
The Goldfinch, by Dona Tartt- (full review here)
If this wins, it will be because of the breathless, insane spectacle of this novel. It's brilliantly original, intricate and filled with incredible characters. The quality of the prose is astonishing, it's an absolute joy to read and the love and the craft that's gone into this novel is evident on every page. I could rave all day about its brilliance.
If anything is going to ruin it for the Goldfinch, it would be the size of it. The hardback is beautiful but enormous and I think many readers that would otherwise love this novel might be deterred by its sheer bulk.
The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee (full review here)
The prose is unique in that it is very dialogue heavy and quite dreamlike in its descriptions of frozen Russia and the horrors of the Eastern front. It's unusual to see an Axis perspective in WW2 fiction, and often narratives are more Western front that Eastern. It's accessible on a technical level as the prose is so readable, but it's incredibly thought provoking and the characters are so brilliantly anonymous and evoke a strange type of empathy...so much so that it sometimes comes as a surprise to be reminded that they are big believers in the Nazi cause. It's accessible in that historical fiction readers would find it appealing and the romantic and political elements might score extra readers.
If it falls down on one thing it would be the dialogue style. While this is very well handled, a lack of signposting might be considered frustrating, and I can see why it could put people off. The plot could seem quite far fetched to some readers.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (full review here)
An honest, unique and well characterised story of race, loss and identity. The character's blog posts help to characterise and to increase the novel's uniqueness, as well adding substance to the style. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent and the plot is both believable and sprawling. It's an incredibly appealing novel, and really thought provoking, sensitively written without asking for sympathy or (I think) being preachy.
If it misses out, it could be down to an interpretation or fear of preaching. Sensitive subjects being tackled honestly and without apology will always be in danger of appearing preachy to some readers.
The Lowland, by Jumpa Lahiri (full review here)
A dreamlike, absorbing read about life in and out of India. The characters' relationships are expertly drawn up and the world feels real and authentic. It's an engaging narrative of tradition versus success and the conflicting sense of family loyalty under the strain of estrangement. Well written, but sparse in style.
Though it's enjoyable and stylish and the plot is engaging, the prose is lacking some of the lyrical drama of the rest of the list. It's works within the style of the narrative, but doesn't really hold up under direct comparison.
So- there are reasons why each of them might not win the Bailey's Prize for Women's Fiction (and most of them I'm just Devil's advocating on). It really is a struggle to call. All of the remaining titles are unique and though some are more accessible than others, the reading is all the more rewarding for weathering the storm. They are all examples of excellence in writing full stop- it genuinely baffles me that the term "Women's Fiction" is usually used so restrictively, when there's such an abundance of diverse writing by women with such rich, evocative prose as these.
Gun to head though...When the criteria have been weighed up, and they all obviously meet the criteria or they would never have made it this far, I'm going with the Goldfinch. Purely because as I was reading them, it is the one that I enjoyed the most. It's the one I still think about and the one that I read most quickly as I couldn't get enough. It is also the only one that I feel like I want to read again.