It's great that the judges of the Women’s Prize for Fiction chose Tayari Jones’ harrowing account of the effect of an African American man’s wrongful incarceration on his marriage. Like Ava DuVernay's dazzling Netflix When they See Us, which I could not turn off this week, and Barry Jenkins'/James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Jones’ novel makes it impossible to forget this: 22% of the world’s incarcerated population is in the USA; a shameful 59% of them are black and/or Hispanic.
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Jones has said that every novel she has written ‘harks back to the Greeks’; her prisoner's wife Celestial is a twist on Penelope, the wife who waits for Odysseus, ‘only modern, independent and famous for her art’. Curiously, Homer lies behind two of the other shortlisted novels, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller’s Circe.
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If there are runners-up as distinguished as Barker and Miller, how can I object to being runner-up for what is the fifth, sixth or seventh time (I have seriously lost count) for the London Hellenic Prize with Aristotle’s Way? Since I didn’t know I had been shortlisted this year, getting told on Thursday that I was bridesmaid yet again came as a pleasant surprise. Surely it would be disorientating if I ever came first?
This means that Homer has beaten Aristotle, since the prize deservedly goes to Michael Hughes’ Country, a retelling of the Iliad in the context of the Northern Irish troubles. Hughes is a lovely man (I interviewed him and Barker at the Piccadilly Waterstone’s last year) and the book is tremendous. The Irish dialogue is crying out for a radio adaptation and he is also an actor (hint to radio commissioners).
Homer was Aristotle’s favourite author, to judge from the number and nature of the Homeric quotations in his works. He thinks about random bad luck with Priam's staggering misfortunes; he suggests avoiding vices by following the example of Odysseus, steering between Scylla and Charybdis. So I bet Aristotle wouldn’t mind being beaten by The Best Ever Bard, at all.
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