Congratulations are in order for A.M. Homes, who won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel May We Be Forgiven this past Wednesday. She joins Tea Obreht, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marilynne Robinson, Lionel Shriver, and fellow shortlisted authors Zadie Smith and Barbara Kingsolver amongst those authors toting a Bessie on their trophy shelves. This is Homes’ first major literary prize, but with a substantial oeuvre and several fellowships to her name she was by no means an underdog.
Of course, that is not to say that her win was ever guaranteed. As I noted previously, this year’s shortlist was particularly strong: Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, and Barbara Kingsolver have all been shortlisted or have won the prize in the past. Mantel, whose Bringing Up the Bodies has already won the Man Booker Prize and Costa Book of the Year, was always a contender. Indeed I doubt anyone would have been surprised had she won, though winning three of Britain’s major literary prizes would have been an unprecedented achievement. But to the bemusement of many, Homes has denied Bringing Up the Bodies a literary triple crown.
May We Be Forgiven distinguished itself on the shortlist as the only darkly comic novel. Indeed, the chair of judges praised Homes for her ‘dazzling, original, viscerally funny black comedy – a subversion of the American dream.’ It is the story of a younger brother who is left to pick up the pieces after his enviably successful older brother kills his wife. With frankness and wit, Homes unravels the American dream into an honest and confusing tangle. It is resonant, enjoyable, and as the judges note, ‘the kind of book we would want to pass on to our friends.’
Homes is an interesting and daring choice for the Women’s Prize. As she discusses with Jeanette Winterson here, it is not obvious that her stories are written by a woman, nor do they feature particularly female concerns. The uniformed reader could easily mistake her for a male author, with her ambiguous initials and plethora of male narrators. In fact, the most prominent female character in May We Be Forgiven is perhaps the brother’s wife, who is murdered in the first chapter. Homes also claims May We Be Forgiven as an attempt at the ‘Great American Novel’ without a hint of apology or embarrassment, making her one of the few – if the only – women writers to state such high aims so plainly.
But Homes distinguishes herself not just within women’s writing, but contemporary writing as a whole. She is known for her proclivity for discussing the aspects of life few other authors are willing explore; for instance, in just the first few pages of May We Be Forgiven our narrator imagines his brother having sex with his wife in hilarious detail. Homes’ writing concerns mainly family drama and is quintessentially American, but casts a refreshingly satirical eye on American ideals. The work which first brought her into the critics’ good graces, Music for Torching, features a dysfunctional family in suburban America, and in Homes’ unique fashion it is irreverent and unpredictable: a hostage situation in a school sits comfortably amidst sexy cops and a cleaning crew in space suits. May We Be Forgiven, then, both plays to her strengths and fits in well with her body of work. Her writing is not only limited to literary fiction, however. She wrote for season two of HBO’s The L Word, produced season three, and apparently has more television projects in the works.
I am happy to see Homes win, and only partly because I have the satisfaction of having accurately predicted her win. As Homes’ first major prize, this may be a significant landmark in her career, perhaps a sign that she is moving into higher literary echelons. As the Women’s Prize (soon to be the Baileys Women’s Prize) enters a new chapter of its history, I hope we see Homes’ name appear again amidst the likes of Kingsolver, Smith, and Mantel.
Dates of first published are listed, regardless of reprint or cover-edition