Saturday, February 11, 2023

Caroline Lea

Caroline Lea grew up in Jersey in the United Kingdom. Her fiction and poetry have been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Fish Short Story Competition and various flash fiction prizes. She currently lives in Warwick with her two young children. Her work often explores the pressure of small communities and fractured relationships, as well as the way our history shapes our beliefs and behavior.

Prize Women is Lea's fourth novel.

Elodie Harper, bestselling author of The Wolf Den, called it “a profoundly moving and absolutely gripping novel about the choices women face – and the choices they are denied. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Lea's reply:
Woman having babies for money sounds like a pitch for a dystopian fiction; however, Prize Women is based on true events, inspired by the real-life drama which ensued when a Toronto lawyer died in 1926 and left the majority of his vast fortune to the woman who could have the greatest number of babies in the ten years following his death. Today, in a space where women’s bodily autonomy is being challenged and their bodily rights slowly stolen away, my book feels horrifyingly relevant, and it is this that has shaped many of the books I have been reading and rereading over the past months.

As I approach publication, I’ve been increasingly drawn to novels which pit women and their bodily ownership against social expectations: Women Talking by Miriam Toews focuses on true events in an isolated religious community: over a number of years, the women were drugged and raped by the men in their village, who then tried to convince the women that they'd been attacked by Satan. The incident is unspeakably horrific, but Toews gives voices and agency to the women as they debate whether they should stay, leave, or fight the men. Gentle humour in the face of horror and bonds between women are themes in Prize Women too – the Toronto 'baby race' put women on trial, without ever giving them a real voice: their words were filtered by journalists and twisted by gossip -- something that feels both pertinent and horribly relatable to readers almost a century later.

Although Prize Women is based on real events, it's alarmingly easy to make comparisons with novels set in dystopian societies: I’ve recently reread The Handmaid's Tale, as well as rewatching the excellent series. I’ve been drawn to the way it explores the exploitation of women's bodies. Margaret Atwood famously said that she ‘would not put any events into the book that had not already happened.’ Likewise, the circumstances in Prize Women, while shocking, are disturbingly familiar: to this day, some countries offer financial incentives to women for having children or else question their reasons for remaining childless, or their right to be mothers.

This loss of freedom is also present in Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh: a chilling novel about women who are awarded a coloured ticket that dictates whether they may have children or a career. In The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, if women are deemed to have parented badly, their children are removed and the women are sent to a brutal boot camp where they are taught how to be 'good' mothers – whatever that might mean. Terrifyingly, as in Prize Women, the idea of the ‘good’ mother is based on a restrictive set of societal values, often founded on superficial judgements about outward behaviour: those who seem to be best performing the role of ‘good’ mother are the (often privileged) women who are the most worthy, the most deserving, the most praised.

External social judgements and class distinctions are two of the defining themes in Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful novel Demon Copperhead, a modern reframing of David Copperfield, which translates Dickens’s ideas about poverty and social inequality in Victorian London into a searing exploration of poverty in America and particularly the drug crisis in deprived rural communities. Like Prize Women, Kingsolver’s novel depicts characters who are, at least initially, the victims of poverty in a society that deems them worthless. And like some of the characters in Demon Copperhead, my characters search for a way to make their voices heard, to assert their right to exist and, hopefully, to thrive.

Lastly, I’ve been revisiting two wonderful novels from last year, which feature brilliant women: both Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus and The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn contain female characters who, in the face of societal judgement and censure, defiantly define themselves and assert their voices, and their right to be heard. I hope Prize Women will remain with readers the way these books have stayed with me.
Follow Caroline Lea on Twitter.

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Q&A with Caroline Lea.

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--Marshal Zeringue