“How any woman with a family ever put pen to paper I cannot fathom.’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Always the bell rings and the baker calls.’ It did indeed prove almost impossible to get four women into the same room to discuss all six books on the 2022 Women’s Prize shortlist, but after much postponement and delay we return to our roots minus our two planned guests, but with all our usual enthusiasm for discussing and debating the shortlist.
Listen in for our full and frank take on the winner, The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, and the other five shortlisted books. Does Ozeki’s book hold up against the competition? And if you’re only going to read one, which one should it be? How about for book club? Which sparked the most debate? All this and more.
Have you read The Book of Form and Emptiness? Maybe you’ve read something else by Ruth Ozeki. Do you have a favourite on the 2022 shortlist? Let us know in our comments forum, we love to hear from you.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Penguin) ‘From her days as a wild child in prohibition America to the blitz and glitz of wartime London, from the rugged shores of New Zealand to a lonely iceshelf in Antarctica, Marian Graves is driven by a need for freedom and danger. Determined to live an independent life, she resists the pull of her childhood sweetheart, and burns her way through a suite of glamorous lovers. But it is an obsession with flight that consumes her most. Now, as she is about to fulfil her greatest ambition, to circumnavigate the globe from pole to pole, Marian crash lands in a perilous wilderness of ice. Over half a century later, troubled film star Hadley Baxter is drawn inexorably to play the enigmatic pilot on screen. It is a role that will lead her to an unexpected discovery, throwing fresh and spellbinding light on the story of the unknowable Marian Graves.’
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) ‘Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets. So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave? Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain. Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Penguin) ‘It is 1974 on the island of Cyprus. Two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided land, meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek and Christian, and Defne, who is Turkish and Muslim, can meet, in secret, hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. This is where one can find the best food in town, the best music, the best wine. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its immoderate sorrows. In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof, is a fig tree. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and the tree will be there when the war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to rubble, when the teenagers vanish and break apart. Decades later in north London, sixteen-year-old Ada Kazantzakis has never visited the island where her parents were born. Desperate for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home. The Island of Missing Trees is a rich, magical tale of belonging and identity, love and trauma, nature, and, finally, renewal.’
The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen Agostini (Myriad editions) Alethea Lopez is about to turn forty. Fashionable, feisty and fiercely independent, she manages a boutique in Port of Spain, but behind closed doors she’s covering up bruises from her abusive partner and seeking solace in an affair with her boss. When she witnesses a woman murdered by a jealous lover, the reality of her own future comes a little too close to home. Bringing us her truth in an arresting, unsparing Trinidadian voice, Alethea unravels memories repressed since childhood and begins to understand the person she has become. Her next step is to decide the woman she wants to be.’
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Hachette) ‘In this stunning and timely novel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich creates a wickedly funny ghost story, a tale of passion, of a complex marriage and of a woman’s relentless errors. Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading ‘with murderous attention,’ must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day 2019 and ends on All Souls’ Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.’
And the winner:
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate) ‘After the tragic death of his father, fourteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house and sound variously pleasant, angry or sad. Then his mother develops a hoarding problem, and the voices grow more clamorous. So Benny seeks refuge in the silence of a large public library. There he meets a mesmerising street artist with a smug pet ferret; a homeless philosopher-poet; and his very own Book, who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter. Blending unforgettable characters with jazz, climate change and our attachment to material possessions, this is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.’
Read Unpacking my Library by Walter Benjamin
Read more about The Women’s Prize.
Let us know your thoughts on the 2022 Women’s Prize shortlist. Which have you read? Which were your favourites?