Reading Women Challenge: Thoughts on Three Books

In July, a box was delivered to my doorstep. Inside, three books thoughtfully tied up in a red bow and a note that read ‘Happy reading’.

All over Cardiff and scattered beyond, members of Cardiff Feminist Book Club received their book stack ready to take part in the Reading Women Challenge by The Reading Agency and Women’s Prize. As 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, they want to start a conversation about each of the previous winners and crown a Winner of Winners!

For the challenge, different groups and clubs received a set of books selected from the winners list. Our group members were each gifted three books focused on the core theme of ‘family’, including Home by Marilynne Robinson, followed by We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and rounding things off with On Beauty by Zadie Smith.

Since July, we’ve been meeting towards the end of each month to share our thoughts and feelings about each of the books, and to discuss some of the key issues and themes within them. The books have thrown up some very varied reactions, with some people loving the writing whilst other really didn’t enjoy it or some experiencing difficulties with the content whilst other liked exploring the challenging topic. There’s been really diverse responses to the books which has made for some interesting chats!

As I’ve now completed the three reads of the Reading Women Challenge (and intrigued to read more from the Winner of Winners list), I thought I would share my thoughts on the three books. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and what you thought about them in the comments, I’d love to hear.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Starting the challenge off with Home felt a bit like a non-starter for me. Unfortunately, I really struggled with this book. I hate to speak badly of books, especially when other members of the group really enjoyed reading it, but I found very little to like about the book. I found the story very dry and the characters dull. It was incredibly slow-placed and laboriously over-written.

Ultimately, I was bored the whole way through this book and willing it to be over. I often questioned if I was even reading the right book because to look at the reviews online, it should have been an incredible story and amazing piece of writing. I appear to be in the minority with my response to Home, but it was just not the book for me.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

This is a conflicting one for me now. Before sitting down to read WNTTAK, I was intimidated by both its size (it’s a chunky read) and the content. I remember seeing this book before and thinking that the topic around a school shooting was not something that I could sit down and read about.

However, once I actually settled into the format, I really enjoyed the tense nature of the book and slowly working my way through a long book (I typically don’t choose books over about 350 pages). I found it refreshing to see the depiction of a woman who doesn’t really like children or feel a motherly instinct. Although, of course, I recognise that her actions are incredibly problematic and damaging for a child. This book is a very challenging read that delves into the question of nature vs. nurture.

Unfortunately, during the challenge, the reading group learned that Lionel Shriver has shared some incredibly hateful words and behaviours including both racist and transphobic comments. As a result, we decided as a group to release a statement that we do not support her inclusion in the Winner of Winners competition. You can read the full statement here.

Shriver’s views do not reflect our beliefs and values as a group and my own personal beliefs and values, as we strive to be inclusive, intersectional feminists and allies.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The final read of the challenge was another sizable book and one that I can’t quite decide where I sit with. Whilst both an interesting, in-depth view into the lives of the characters within the book and a well-written piece, it didn’t really grab me and I’m not sure it will have a lasting impact on me.

There’s certainly peaks within the book and parts in which I was racing through the pages to learn what would happen next for the family, but the nature of being a fly on the wall of their lives means that you’re able to peek into one period of their lives but once you leave, you also leave it behind.

I’m really glad to have read something by Zadie Smith because I’ve heard nothing but positive things about her writing, but I’m undecided about whether I will pick up another.

Completing the Challenge

This challenge was certainly a mixed bag for me!

It was great to be introduced to books that I wouldn’t have picked up for myself and to read much longer books than I am typically used to. Although I didn’t fall in love with any of the books or authors, it has encouraged me to expand my search for different types of stories and to try books that I may not have previously considered. It was also a pleasure to be part of the group with Cardiff Feminist Book Club and take part in the challenge with them over the last three months.

I’m always a fan of reading more women, and would encourage you to actively pick up books by authors with experiences that are different to your own or those who are all too often marginalised. This year I’ve been reading many more authors of colour and queer authors, as well as stories that are more inclusive of different identities, and it’s something that I only want to continue and grow in the coming months and years.

It’s so refreshing and an absolute joy to read far and wide so I hope that you will consider picking up more books by a wider range of authors. Happy reading!

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