The Booker Prize This Year

And the Booker Prize, formerly known as Man Booker, goes this year to the one and only – oops. The Prize has two winners this year.  Although I anxiously wait for the annual announcement, when this year’s diluted prize was announced a week ago, I was disappointed – not in the authors who won or the books selected – but in the judges.  

The Prize this year was awarded to two authors for books about women: Margaret Atwood for her much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. 

Erica Wagner, author, literary critic and most importantly a recent former judge for the Booker Prize, noted the rules clearly state “the prize may not be divided or withheld,” and must be given to a single author. The judges for this year’s prize said “we cannot abide by these rules.”  Wagner decided this year’s judges’ decision to blatantly disregard these rules fits well with the current state of affairs.  Politicians on both sides of the pond have refused to follow Supreme Court and Constitutional rules – so far without consequence.

  Although the Booker Prize is for one book, some reviewers supposed Atwood was really receiving well deserved credit for her body of work.  Her first book, The Edible Woman, was published in 1970, and I first connected to her with Blind Assassin in 2000 when she won the Booker Prize, and then backtracked to read her famous Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985. Atwood has also written short stories, children’s books, and several nonfiction books; Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in 2008 may be the best known.  Now in her early 70s, she maintains a lively presence in social media while she continues to write books. She recently said that a person of her age “can afford to be undignified… and to stretch the boundaries.”

Evaristo, 60, the first Black woman to win the Booker, has her own body of work across poetry, short fiction, drama, essays, literary criticism, and projects for stage and radio but she was a new author for me. Reviewer Claire Alifree calls her book “a polyphonic sequence of largely unpunctuated, interconnected stories about 12 black women… but despite the lack of conventional punctuation Girl, Woman, Other makes for fast, easy reading.”

 I have not read either book yet, but this year’s thirteen Booker Dozen longlist included My Sister, the Serial Killer – a title I could not resist. This short book was available in my library, and I did read it.

Here is the Prize summary of both winners. Could you have decided on one?

The Winners

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.

Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

A collection of stories about twelve very different British characters, mostly women, mostly black. Chapter one starts with Amma, a middle-aged, politically engaged lesbian theatre-maker whose latest play is about to be staged at the National Theatre. Next is her daughter Yazz, a precocious undergraduate who hangs with a group of similarly assertive female pals. The story follows the characters across Britain from twelve different perspectives:

Ten-year-old Grace is an orphan dreaming of the mysterious African father she will never meet. Winsome is a young bride, recently arrived from Barbados, realising the man she married might be a fool. Carole is rejecting her cultural background to blend in at her posh university. Morgan, who used to be Megan, is visiting Hattie who’s in her nineties, who used to be young and strong, who fights to remain independent, and who still misses Slim every day. Some stories are interconnected, some not.

The Power

UnknownYour hands will be cool but your mind may receive a jolt when you read Naomi Alderman’s electrifying and timely book, The Power.  In this dystopian world, Alderman asks  – what if women had all the power? What if all those women who were attacked by sexual predators could just zap them away with volts of electricity?

Leadership skills are helpful in this futuristic world, but electric shocks delivered to the uncooperative offer the most persuasive and sometimes deadly incentives.  Alderman frames her story around the draft of a novel written by an historian in the future; the novel begins and ends with letters asking for and receiving short reviews of the novel’s believability.  The historian is tracing the origin of the set of nerve cells – a skein of electrical wiring – across the collarbones of women.

In the historian’s premise, the appearance of the powerful skeins caused the shift in power from male to female control of the world.  Teenage girls first discover their power through manipulation of the electrical currents they can control for self-defense against men.  Initially, this unleashed power saves them from sexual advances, but eventually, its use for aggressiveness leads to a new religion, an armed force of women, and eventual take over of a world previously dominated by men.  Leaders include an ambitious  woman politician, the daughter of an underworld gangster, and an abused girl who becomes a charismatic pseudo-religious icon.

Alderman cleverly inserts recognizable scenarios of sex and power, reversing the attackers to women and the prey as men, as well as believable Internet forums corralling and controlling public opinion.  The action is sometimes graphic and the one male hero, a Nigerian reporter, manages to document the atrocities and send them into the newsfeed. The abuse of power, it seems, is not limited to men. Eventually, the world blows up in a nuclear disaster to reboot into a new future with better women in charge.

The final irony of a world with women in charge has a laughable moment when the reviewer is writing letters to the author commenting on the feasibility of the book for publication.  The reviewer, a woman, asks the author, a man, to change to a female pseudonym – the story may be better received if written by a woman.

Although I am not a fan of dystopian novels or science fiction, The Power, the winner of the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction, has a timeliness for today’s headlines.  Compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the story has the same impact – a mix of terrifying fantasy and realism with electrifying satire.  This captivating book is scary, humorous, and unsettling – worth talking about.

Stone Mattress

Margaret Atwood’s short story for The New Yorker – “Stone Mattress” – decidedly changed my mind about exploring on my own.  Who knows who could be lurking among those seemingly innocent elder travelers?

Atwood’s character, Verna, is a clever murderer – but she has a good excuse.  Her path to destruction started in high school, fueled by a horrific incident that changed her life.  When Verna discovers Bob, the smirking cretin who caused her misery, as a fellow passenger on board a cruise to the Arctic, the opportunity for revenge is too easy to pass up.

Having just enjoyed cookies and wine on a cruise through Christmas-land, I considered taking another cruise – maybe on my own.  Atwood has disabused me of that option – at least to the Arctic.

Her short story is compact – with a zinger ending – just like her many of her books.

Read Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” – here