Last night, I went to the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings event at the Southbank Centre in London and it was every bit as awesome as I hoped it would be.
Over the last couple of months, I have read five out of the six books on this year’s shortlist. In summary, ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A.M. Homes was the most dysfunctional (i.e. my least favourite), ‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver was beautifully written, ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson had an intriguing concept which was handled very well, ‘NW’ by Zadie Smith had excellent dialogue and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel was an impressive interpretation of historical events. Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to read ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple yet but I will try and seek out a copy in the future.
Before attending the event, I spent some time wandering around the Southbank Centre taking advantage of an uncharacteristically warm and sunny June day in London.
This is the Southbank Book Market under Waterloo Bridge.
*Homer Simpson drooling noise*
I didn’t buy anything but I did pick up a free bookmark which informed me that 29th June – 6th July is Independent Booksellers Week…. make sure you put it in your diary.
And now to the event itself… This is the main stage in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I was lucky enough to get a seat on the second row from the front. Photography during the readings, however, was strictly forbidden. Given that I was sitting directly behind the official photographer, I didn’t want to push my luck.
I remember that there were very few seats left when I bought my ticket and sure enough, the hall really was packed. Also, I know that this sounds quite odd given the nature of the award, but I was actually quite surprised that about 95% of the audience at the event was female. Yes, this is the Women’s Prize for Fiction but it is hardly a chick lit prize. I certainly think these books would all be enjoyed by men too. Given the reason why the Women’s Prize was launched in the first place, I found it strangely ironic that the audience was very unbalanced.
In alphabetical order, the authors gave a short reading from their nominated books and answered a few questions from Kate Mosse (one of the original founders of the prize) and the audience. Kate Atkinson read a passage describing Ursula’s affair with Crighton. A. M. Homes read from the opening Thanksgiving scene in her book. Barbara Kingsolver also read from the opening scene of ‘Flight Behaviour’ when Dellarobia discovers the butterflies. Mantel read from a passage in which the court receives the news of Katherine’s death. Semple read an extract from one of Bernadette’s letters in which she rants about how awful Seattle is. Smith chose a scene from ‘NW’ in which several people ask a young man to stop smoking in the playground. All of them were highly engaging to listen to.
It was also really great to get some insight into what inspired these books. Smith once fell victim to the exact same scam outlined in the introduction of ‘NW’. For Atkinson, ‘Life After Life’ was a “break” from the serious plotting required for her crime novels which I thought was interesting as that novel also seems very intricately woven in terms of plot. Homes’s work was originally meant to be a short story for a volume of work edited by Zadie Smith but eventually became a novel (personally, I wish that ‘May We Be Forgiven’ had been a short story…).
And then there was a book signing afterwards…
I really enjoyed the readings and would definitely go to similar events in the future. Overall, I wouldn’t say that the event has changed my views on either the books themselves or my predictions for who will actually win the Prize later tonight. I still think that Mantel is a strong contender and the fact that she has won other major awards for ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ shouldn’t hold her back. ‘Life After Life’ and ‘Flight Behaviour’ are also very strong novels. In my view, I am not sure ‘NW’ and ‘May We Be Forgiven’ are really consistent enough overall to win the Prize. Having not yet read ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’, I can’t really pass judgement on that one. It’s a very strong shortlist and the judges have an unenviable task ahead of them…
Who do you think will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Who do you want to win?