I waited ages to get hold of this book (long waiting lists for library copies, not surprisingly). I was delighted that a black woman writing about black women had won the Booker Prize. And I was intrigued by a book that had the judging panel breaking their only-one-winner rule, especially when that other winner was none other than Margaret Atwood. In short, I was really looking forward to reading it. But as you may have guessed from this build-up, reader, I was disappointed. Really disappointed, in fact.
I expected more than a catalogue of potted histories; I felt like I was reading LinkedIn profiles by the end. It felt like there was a template for each character/chapter. Or maybe a recipe. Assemble the basic ingredients: demographic details, hair, skin, clothes style; add a sprinkle of cultural signifiers (tastes in music, books, films, food, shops), drop into some predictable locations (Peckham, Brixton), and bake on a low temperature. I got no sense of personality, or place, or life. What should have been wonderfully diverse stories of fascinating women are flattened into sketchy sociological case studies, and the clunky form helped by pedestrian prose and unconvincing dialogue. What could have been a rich polyphony becomes a monotone; the individual stories lack narrative dynamic and emotional depth, so after the first few they feel repetitive and flat. More characters arrive, more demographic data and mini biographies are added to the pile, but it’s more of the same effortful authenticity – no sparks, no surprises, no tension. I was left feeling that characters and action had been sacrificed to form, that the rigid structure stifled the cast of impressive women and a more impressive work. Underwhelming.