Book Box | My emotional reading journey through the Women's Prize shortlist - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | My emotional reading journey through the Women's Prize shortlist

May 19, 2024 12:02 AM IST

Six shortlisted titles set in Sri Lanka, Palestine, China, and the Aussie outback take me on an emotional journey to find the perfect Women's Prize for Fiction

Dear Reader,

The Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist is enticing PREMIUM
The Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist is enticing

When I look at a literary shortlist, I want to read all the books on it. There’s something about making up my own mind and deciding which book deserves the prize.

I am curious about my own taste. Will I choose the book the expert panel of judges chooses — will we be in literary sync? Or will the judges pick a book I’ve been struggling with, a book I can’t even finish, as the ultimate prize winner?

A book shortlist pops up on my Instagram feed. It is a challenge I can’t resist. It features six titles, all in the running for the Women's Prize for Fiction.

The shortlist is enticing. The books are set in different countries and times — River East, River West in China, Enter Ghost in Israel-Palestine, Brotherless Night in Sri Lanka, Restless Dolly Maunder in nineteenth-century Australia, The Wren, The Wren and Soldier Sailor in Ireland. It feels like reading the world in six books.

Motherhood is my first port of call with Soldier Sailor. I am in my Mumbai house, once rambunctious and riotous with the peals and squeals of our three girls. Now they’re all far away, in their own homes in New York, Bengaluru and New Delhi. I miss the noise, I even miss the mess. I head for my favourite reading spot, on the big chair by the window, and pick up my Kindle to read Claire Kilroy’s Soldier Sailor, a story of motherhood charting extreme highs and lows, and how life turns upside down with the birth of a child. It feels like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, only more raw and extreme. My memories of mommyhood are now so sepia-tinged — in short, I simply can’t relate. I put aside Soldier Sailor.

Next on, is Enter Ghost. I am now in seat 6D on a flight to Chandigarh, and quickly absorbed in the world of the actor Sonia Nasir, who has returned to Haifa in Israel to visit her sister, as she tries to recover from a failed love affair. She gets drawn into an Arabic production of Hamlet, playing Gertrude and even Ophelia. I love this part – how the setting of a Shakespearian play in another culture makes you look at the play so differently.

Enter Ghost(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
Enter Ghost(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

Next on my list is Anne Enright. I’d read her The Gathering years ago and still remember the emotions this powerful book about sexual abuse evoked. The Wren, The Wren is different, more distant and cerebral — it experiments with form and plays with points of view. I admire the sentences but I am not drawn in any visceral way.

An hour after landing at Chandigarh airport, I am joined by my middle daughter. Together we drive into the mountains, speeding through gigantic tunnels cut into the hillsides, until we reach Manali in the early evening. Our family house is shuttered, and we unpack in practised efficiency, pulling out mattresses, laying sheets and setting the kettle on for tea. And then I am lost again. This time in River East, River West in China.

The next morning is a sunny summer day. My daughter pulls out a durrie on the overgrown lawn in front of the house. She snuggles up with our favourite person, our beautiful brown and golden dog. I take my Kindle and go join them, as I read the story of fourteen-year-old Alva, who is half-Chinese and half-American. The story moves back and forth between the threads of the lives of the daughter, Alva and her mother, Sloane. How profoundly our parents' pasts impact our present, I realise as I read on. The book has the relaxed feel of a family saga.

River East, River West(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)
River East, River West(Sonya Dutta Choudhury)

In Restless Dolly Maunder, author Kate Grenville constructs a fictional story about her grandmother. The novel is set in 1880s Australia, and traces Dolly’s struggles with the patriarchy and society. It feels worthy, but dry and uninspiring.

And then there is Brotherless Night.

“I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know.” says the first line. From here I fell headlong into Jaffna in Sri Lanka, where I met the child Sashi who dreams of being a doctor. She has five brothers, a mother, and a father who is away a lot. The girl and her family started to feel like my own. With each page, I get more emotionally invested. I taste the fragrant curry leaves, the yellow-green snake gourds, the burnished eggplants and the hot chillies of their cooking. I hold my breath when the girl and her brothers walk to the Jaffna library to study their science textbooks. I am petrified when the Sri Lankan army rounds up all the Tamil boys and I am distraught when the militant Tiger Eelam group tries to take away all the others.

It’s been ages since I cried over a book, and now I can’t stop. In Manali, the wedding we have come to attend is over, and my husband and children have left. I moon around the empty family house, unearthing every historical detail of the traumatic Tamil years and researching the people and personalities that inspired this story.

Of all the books I have read set in this tragic time, including the very hard-hitting The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, this one is the saddest, the most heart-rending, the most interrogative of what is terrorism. Brotherless Night shows us what the world’s greatest fiction is capable of. It makes me think of Toni Morrison saying: “Reading fiction allows us to explore the depths of our own emotions, question the world around us, and find solace in the transformative power of storytelling.”

River East, River West(Sonya Dutta Choudhury )
River East, River West(Sonya Dutta Choudhury )

Brotherless Night has my vote for the Woman’s Prize. But even still, I tell myself not to get too intense. If this book doesn’t win the prize, I will be disappointed and not just because I love this book. I will be disappointed because too often South Asian books don’t make the literary canon, and they don’t win the big prizes. I will be disappointed because I would like a story that deals with the DNA of terrorism and the effect of war and violence on both men and women to get the sort of global platform the winner of this prize will get. But I will try not to take it personally. After all, evaluations are subjective — one woman’s Brotherless Night is another woman’s Restless Dolly Maunder.

Winning the Women’s Prize is special — it was established in 1996 only for women authors because the big prizes like the Booker Prize were ignoring women authors and their themes. The winners in the last few years have all been quite glorious, everything from Demon Copperhead to We Need to Talk About Kevin, Piranesi, The Book of Form and Emptiness and An American Marriage. Some of these books, like Demon Copperhead, achieved larger recognition as it won the Pulitzer Prize as well, but many were ignored by the bigger prizes. I am grateful to the Women’s Prize for spotlighting them. This year, a jury of five women will announce the winning novel on June 13; till then, we are in suspense.

In other news, the literary world lost a grand dame earlier this week. Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro passed away at 92. Her short stories capture the desires and dynamics of human relationships. They’re powerful and also dark and disturbing. Listen here to Margaret Atwood read aloud an Alice Munro short story. Or pick an Alice Munro story from 25 of her best stories here.

And until next week, happy reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

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