Orange Prize reviews
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Date: 08 July, 2004

South Africa

To buy any of the titles, click on the title or cover


'Atwood forces us to face God, asking whether we create God in our own image and whether we can survive without God.'

Discrimination! Debate is always ignited as the Orange Prize for Fiction is announced. In an age of equality, why do we need a prize that only takes into account women's writing?

I could go into a whole host of reasons, but will refrain as regardless of gender politics I love the Orange Prize. It exposes me to books that I wouldn't have read by women from all over the world.

This year's short list was a bumper crop with writers from Nigeria, South Africa, Canada and the UK. Stories have been set in Asia, Russia, Nigeria, a future dystopia, wartime London, and 19th Century New Zealand. You can't really get more varied than that!

Andrea Levy claimed this year's prize for her wonderful Small Island, beating off the bookies favourites Margaret Atwood and Rose Tremain. Each short listed book is reviewed below.

Small IslandClick to buy
Andrea Levy, Review

'For the teeth and glasses. That was the reason so many people were coming to this country' according to Queenie's neighbour. Queenie's new tenants are causing consternation, they are black; they are Jamaicans.

It is not only the neighbours who disapprove of this 'house full of coloureds' but also Queenie's husband who eventually returns having been missing after the end of the war.

It is a comedy of manners, especially as the two couples learn to live with each other. Hortense was brought up with a belief in a particular Englishness and is horrified to discover that London is shabby, dirty and rude. Gilbert, her husband is struggling with daily racism, especially after having an iota of respect whilst serving in the RAF during the war.

Incredulous that her husband brought her over to live in a small room at the top of too many stairs, Hortense is mortified at using the same basin for washing herself, clothes, dishes and food. She also begins to wonder who this man has become. Painful memories of her first love Michael who is missing in action start to surface.

Queenie on the other hand is having to deal with friends and neighbours becoming ever more distant and angry. She is blamed for them being 'forced' to sell up due to the degraded neighbourhood. Emerging memories of war time friendships and an affair with a black man also threaten to cause chaos, although they may also provide links with the strangers upstairs.

I started reading this book on the tube and knew within the first 10 pages that it was the winner. Levy combines historical fact, laced with wry humour to illustrate beautifully a time of change for England and for our newcomers.

Swinging back and forth between the war and 1948, she depicts an era that many of us won't remember although we may be aware of the stories from our elders. Capturing the rhythm of each individual, whether their syntax, or their daily concerns and hopes, these people become all too real.

She plays with that strand of humanity, which is confused by difference, all too often leading to suspicion and assumptions. How often do we miss the commonalities shared by all?

The book is even more poignant at the moment as we face the ever-strengthening BNP at a time of deepening suspicion of our fellow human beings.

Oryx and CrakeClick to buy
Margaret Atwood, Virago

As with Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, this is about a future dystopia. However instead of a world dominated by right wing religious fundamentalists, Snowman's world is post apocalypse - a cataclysm of science and greed.

Snowman tries to remember his past and the cause of the apocalypse as he tries to make sense of his memories of Oryx and Crake. The question is raised: 'Are they friends or was at least one of them God?'

Which brings us to the present. Snowman's only non predatory company are the children of Crake who seem to think that he is some form of God. He is perplexed about how he is to behave towards these innocents, caught between reaching out in love and striking out in fear.

As grotesque as her depiction is, Atwood asks pertinent questions about humanity. How desperate are we for eternal life? Is altruism suffused with vanity? How far are willing to go, in our quest to play God? However most importantly Atwood forces us to face God, asking whether we create God in our own image and whether we can survive without God.

Read the full Oryx and Crake review.

The ColourClick to buy
Rose Tremain, Vintage

I have to confess that based on my usual reading habit, The Colour would not have made it past the first 4 pages. Dismissed almost immediately as a historical romance, it was thanks to my Surefish duty that I discovered a hugely rich novel.

Newly weds Joseph and Harriet, have emigrated for the New Zealand gold rush from Victorian England. He is keen to find the 'colour' either on his land or in the gold works further a field. Harriet, fiercely independent, wants to break rigid Victorian boundaries. She dreams of love but finds it elusive in her marriage.

Tremain asks 'How far do we go in search of our dreams?' and 'Who or what are we willing to sacrifice on the way.' Far from being a romantic tale, the twists are often twisted and bitter. The consequences of actions are almost biblical and will leave you haunted.

The Great FireClick to buy
Shirley Hazzard, Virago

Hazzard's first novel in 20 years is set in the post war reality of Japan, China, Hong Kong and Britain. The war has devastated communities and lives but change is afoot in 1947. The empire is crumbling and new ideologies and alliances are being built.

Aldred, a wounded and decorated war veteran is writing a book about the new Asia with all of it's cultural contortions. His move to Kure near Hiroshima brings him in contact with the vibrant Helen and her brother Ben who is suffering a degenerative disease.

As lives around the world try to makes sense of such destruction a growing love between Aldred and Helen develops. Maybe love cannot conquer all but it certainly makes a redemptive impact on our world.

Purple HibiscusClick to buy
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Fourth Estate

Fifteen year old Kambili lives with her devout Catholic father and family in a secure compound in Nigeria. Another military coup has just occurred and her father's paper has stood fast and criticised the new government rather than bending to its will. Despite the editor being brutally punished her father continues to fight for truth and justice.

Sadly as so often happens, hero's do not fight for right on a 24 hour basis and the moment he is at home, the father rules with a cruel fist. Determined that white missionaries have managed to civilise some blacks, he detests traditional ways and worships English rather than native his Igbo.

In this accomplished debut first novel, Adichie uses the eyes of a young woman to capture the current battles occurring in much of Africa. Predominantly battles of the modern versus the old, in front of the backdrop of corrupt governance. She also exposes the brutality of the duty and sacrifice demanded by blind faith.

Ice RoadClick to buy
Gill Slovo, Little Brown

A bittersweet novel set in 1933 in Leningrad just before Stalin rained terror upon the land. Slovo lovingly charts the lives of her characters leading up to the horrific 900 day siege by the Germans in World War Two where over a million were killed by the cold and hunger.

As befits the time, the main emphasis is on survival and the cost of survival amidst an atmosphere of little hope. What will people do to hold their lives and loves together against the most brutal of elements?

Stories of love are told bravely by the different voices of politicians, daughters and the main commentator, Irina, the cleaner. One particular story is tragic as we watch Natasha fight for love and survival especially during the siege with her young daughter. Her father looks on as he watches his daughter crushed by political forces.

'What is the cost of love and how strong is the human bond between family, friends, husband and wife?' Slovo asks in a brilliantly evocative novel. culture index