A few months ago I posted about the 2021 Women’s Prize longlist. At the time I had only read two of the books, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (both excellent). Since then I’ve read four more of the books from the longlist: Piranesi, Luster, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, and Detransition Baby. I still plan to read Burnt Sugar and Small Pleasures, and maybe Exciting Times.
I posted my review of Piranesi, but I haven’t reviewed the others yet. The other three I read are all debut novels, contemporary fiction, by diverse authors. Here are my thoughts:
Luster by Raven Leilani: I had mixed feelings about this book, which I listened to by audiobook. Edie is a struggling artist in her twenties in a low-level publishing job, who’s having an affair with an older man in an open marriage. I found Edie difficult to relate to, mainly because I didn’t understand her passivity in making (or not making) decisions. I didn’t judge her for sleeping around or having an affair with a married man. But she had a carelessness towards her life that I just couldn’t understand, and I found myself wondering if the issue was generational. She just seemed to drift in and out of situations rather than thinking about them. For example, I can’t imagine throwing a job away the way she does – even a lousy admin job in publishing seems like something you’d want to hang onto. I don’t mind an unlikeable character, but I did have a hard time feeling moved by her struggles. On the positive side, I was really interested in the racial and family issues raised in this novel, especially the way Edie developed relationships with Eric’s wife and daughter (who is adopted and black). This was a novel that raised interesting issues about identity, art, love, and just staying on your feet. It was well-written and memorable. An interesting book, just not one of my favorites.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones: I loved this book for a few reasons. First, it tells a number of gut-wrenching stories and I found myself really caught up in them, especially the stories of Tone and Lala. I liked getting the characters’ different perspectives and I liked the author’s focus on generational trauma and abuse. Second, books like this and Saint X really resonate with me, because while I love island travel, I always feel really conflicted about being a privileged, white, American traveler. And unlike Saint X, this book is written about a real place (though a fictional beach on Barbados) from a person who grew up there — and the focus isn’t on privileged white people, they are the backdrop. I also love a book where the characters aren’t all good or all bad. I won’t go into details, but I liked the way each of these characters developed in the course of the novel and each of them struggled with morality and responsibility. Finally, I love books that are told in local dialect, where different characters have very different voices depending on their location and upbringing. This was a great audiobook, narrated by Danielle Vitalis.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Evans: This is a tough book to review, because like Luster I appreciated the issues it raised but I struggled at times to understand the characters. This novel is about three individuals whose relationships intersect. Reese is a trans woman who used to be in a relationship with Amy, another trans woman. Only Amy is now Ames, having detransitioned after the collapse of their relationship. Ames is now living as a man and in a relationship – sort of – with Katrina, his superior at work who has just become accidentally pregnant with Ames’ child. I sympathized with the characters but I had trouble with the idea of bringing a child into three people’s troubled relationships. I just kept feeling how unrealistic the characters were about raising this child. However, I acknowledge that my views of this book are influenced by the fact that it’s hard for me to relate to characters longing to have a baby. I’ve never felt that longing, and I recognize that because I feel so outside the norm, it makes me defensive. On the other hand, I’ve never been denied the ability to have a child, so I can understand that’s completely different. I appreciated this novel as a story about the experience of transsexual characters, including one who detransitions, something I’ve never read about before. The struggles these characters go through really added to my understanding of transsexual issues. This book explores details about transitioning and detransitioning, like dating and sex and even buying clothes, that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. This book is written by a trans author, which I appreciated, and it’s her debut novel, which is impressive. Unfortunately, I felt like this book weakened at the end and I was left feeing unmoved and a little confused. As a character study, this book works, but the plot works less well.
This year’s shortlist is made up of these six books: The Vanishing Half, Transcendent Kingdom, Piranesi, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. The winner of the Prize will be announced July 7. I’m hoping for Yaa Gyasi to win, though I’d be happy with Piranesi, One-Armed Sister, or Vanishing Half. Great picks this year. What do you think?