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Booker Longlist: After Sappho

So our panel rounds out the longlist with After Sappho.

After Sappho – reviewed by panelists Book Worm, Anita and Tracy

Selby Wynn Schwartz is already an award-winning writer, but with After Sappho she joins that select band of authors who have been longlisted for the Booker for their debut novel.

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: 

A joyous reimagining of the lives of a brilliant group of feminists, sapphists, artists and writers from the past, as they battle for control over their lives, for liberation and for justice.

Told in a series of cascading vignettes, featuring a multitude of voices, After Sappho hails the female torchbearers of the late 19th and early 20th century.

WHAT did we want? To begin with, we wanted what half the population had got by just being born.

Sarah Bernhardt – Colette – Eleanora Duse – Lina Poletti – Josephine Baker – Virginia Woolf… these are just a few of the women sharing the pages of a novel as fierce as it is luminous. Lush and poetic, furious and funny – in After Sappho, Selby Wynn Schwartz has created a work that celebrates the women and trailblazers of the past – and also offers hope for our present, and our futures.

BookWorm’s Thoughts: While I kind of enjoyed this book I do feel that a lot of it went over my head. I managed to pick up the Virginia Woolf hints scattered throughout the various narrative events but I must confess that was about all.

I am not a fan of short stories and the way this is written in short chapters that flit about all over the place gave it a short story kind of vibe and I found that I was never fully invested in any of the characters.

What I did take away from this book is the way that historically the voices of women and those who identify as women, with a few notable exceptions, have been swept away leaving only fragments of what these women achieved for us to find today.

I give the author full credit for the detailed research and the way the narratives are loosely tied together the format just doesn’t really work for me.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total: 13/20

Anita’s Thoughts: If you don’t care about plot or character development, this book’s for you. Somehow this author managed to take a GREAT concept – a historical fiction perspective on feminism and female sexuality – and render it nearly unreadable. If you want to read a book that understands how to intertwine a number of separate, but related, biographies, When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, does it right. Pretentious, poetic turns of phrase do not save lack of storytelling in this one.

Writing quality: 3/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: 0/4
Plot development: 1/4
Overall enjoyment: 0/2
Total: 8/20

Tracy’s Thoughts: This is one of the more original novels I’ve read.

The setup of snippets about the character in time was what made it unique, and it was, at times, brilliant, at others, it got old. But the flow of the story wasn’t affected by the breaking up of the text. 

The chorus of narrators (very Greek play-esque) evoked another writer at that time and place- Proust- with its lush descriptions of Paris and characters, but with fewer words. It also compares with Proust’s personal life a bit- and though he’s not mentioned in the book, he was there in spirit. 

I took longer to read this than normal, because I was getting lost in information about the remarkable people. It seems the author is suggesting Virginia Woolf as the Sappho of the 20th Century- an interesting thought, anyway. 

What brought this down for me: it often felt pretentious- the chorus was often one-track and preachy, and frankly misanthropic at times. It was like an after poetry/women’s studies class discussion in a cafe. I truly don’t understand the fascination with Sappho, and there were references that went way over my head. But I learned something, and I felt the spirit of Proust while I was reading. Pass the madeleines.

Writing quality: 3.5/5
Originality: 4.5/5
Character development: 3/ 4
Plot: 2/4
Enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 15/20

Our final panel’s Rankings

  1. The Colony 18.8
  2. Maps of our Spectacular Bodies – 18.1
  3. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida 18
  4. The Trees 16.4
  5. Oh William 15.6
  6. Small Things Like These 15.3
  7. Glory 15.25
  8. Case Study 15
  9. Booth 13.7
  10. The Treacle Walker: 13
  11. Trust 12.6
  12. After Sappho 12
  13. Night crawling 11.08

Have you read it?  What do you think? What do you think of our rankings? Did we get it right or wrong? Which panel member did you most agree with?

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