I read the Women’s Prize shortlist

For several years now, I’ve wanted to read all the books on the shortlist for a major literary prize before they announce the winner. I’ve always wanted to be part of the excitement surrounding a literary prize, to follow along with the growing hype and to watch the winner’s announcement knowing all the shortlisted books and genuinely rooting for one of them to win.

Well, this year I have finally done it! I have read all six books on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, which is due to be announced this week, on 8th September (a couple of months delayed, because of the ol’ pandemic). So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the shortlisted books – and my winning prediction!

Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters

This book actually made the longlist, not the shortlist, for the Women’s Prize, but it was the book that inspired me to read the shortlist this year, so I have to mention it. When it was first announced that Detransition, Baby (which is by a trans author) was longlisted for the prize, a lot of anti-trans losers were mad about it – which of course made me want to read it more. (Obviously trans women are women, and so trans women can certainly be longlisted for women’s prizes.)

Detransition, Baby is about Reese, a trans woman who desperately wants a child; Ames, Reese’s ex, who used to be a trans woman but detransitioned to live as a man; and Katrina, an Asian American woman who is pregnant with Ames’ baby. The novel negotiates the relationships between these characters as they imagine a future in which they might all raise the child together.

This book dives deep into gender identity, gender politics, womanhood and racism, and explores all the complex intersections between them. Now and again I felt that the dialogue and characters were a bit unrealistic (they give very long, very eloquent speeches about whatever point they are making), so I never felt fully drawn into the novel, but it is still an excellent read that (especially if you are a white, cisgender person like me) will really make you think about identity in a way you might not have done before.

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half has been getting all the hype since last year – I received my copy last Christmas, before it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize. The story follows Desiree and Stella, two light-skinned black girls raised in Mallard, an all-black town in the USA. When they are teenagers they run away to New Orleans, where Stella disappears, leaving Desiree to return to Mallard with her dark-skinned daughter. In fact, Stella has ‘passed’ as a white woman and married a white man, and so she disconnects from her sister and her hometown because she is afraid of being ‘discovered’.

Racism and colourism are central themes of this book. What does it mean to be black and to be white? What happens if you ‘pass’ as white and then the white people you are living amongst find out? How do you live in a black community that is just as obsessed with lightness and darkness as white communities? Bennett creates a complex world of tangled relationships and emotions, and her central characters are compelling and sympathetic. Overall, though, I didn’t fall in love with this book like many other people have done – I appreciated what it was doing, and I was absorbed by the end, but I didn’t form a deeper connection with it than that.

No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

No One Is Talking About This is the shortest book on the shortlist, at only around 200 pages, but it is no means an insubstantial read. The amount that Lockwood manages to pack into this slim volume is seriously impressive.

The book is written in a quite experimental style – it is a stream-of-consciousness-style collection of short paragraphs; a series of thoughts and ideas from the narrator, hung around an intense central story about the narrator’s baby niece, who is born with Proteus Syndrome. The novel deals with the trauma of the little girl’s condition, and also the incredible joy she brings to the family. The internet is also a central theme in the book, and Lockwood effectively captures the compulsive, clamorous, whiplash-like feeling of being a modern person (and woman) on the internet.

I ate this book up in a day, but I don’t wish it had lasted longer, because part of its charm is that it is so short and so intense. And, the highest praise: I don’t cry at books, but the writing in this made me catch my breath, and my eyes were certainly damp by the time I turned the final page.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

I really didn’t know what to expect when I went into Piranesi, but it certainly wasn’t this. Honestly, this is such a weird, unpredictable book, and I completely adored it.

The book is about Piranesi, a man who lives in the House, which is an endless series of halls spread across three levels. Piranesi lives on the middle level; the level below is the ocean (with its steady, predictable tides) and the level above is the sky (filled with clouds and rain). Most of the halls are filled with statues, and Piranesi only ever sees one other person, the Other, who brings him things that the House cannot provide. But although this seems like a strange, isolated life, Piranesi is happy. He loves the House, he understands the tides and he is absolutely content to write his diaries and follow his rituals and not question how he came to be here.

I won’t tell you more than that (perhaps I’ve already said too much), because this is a treasure of a book that you absolutely must discover for yourself. Suffice it to say that this is the book from the shortlist that has stayed with me the longest, and I often think that the world would be a better place if we were all a bit more like Piranesi.

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s second novel – after the astronomical success of her debut, Homegoing – is Transcendent Kingdom. I have read them both, and I must say that this one is my favourite of the two. It follows Gifty, a Ghanaian American woman working on her PhD in addictive behaviours and possible physiological cures for addiction. We find out during the novel that Gifty’s brother, Nana, was an addict, and the impact of his addiction on the lives of her and her mother echoes down the years.

I really loved this book. It is quite slow-paced and there isn’t a lot of rip-roaring plot; instead it is thoughtful and it takes its time over its subject matter. I can’t think of many other novels that deal with the ‘conflict’ between science and religion in quite this way: Gifty is a scientist from a religious background, and throughout the book she tries to reconcile these two worlds (which often seem at odds with each other) in her own life. Transcendent Kingdom is masterfully written and thought-provoking, with a cast of characters I ended up caring about deeply.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House – Cherie Jones

Quite different from Transcendent Kingdom is One-Armed Sister, which is a much more plot-based novel, with multiple threads and characters that Jones cleverly weaves together. Set in Barbados, the story follows Lala, an 18-year-old girl living with her abusive husband Adan, and the consequences for both of them when something terrible happens to their baby. The writing shifts perspective and time, so we jump into different characters’ minds and memories, fleshing out the histories of these people and showing how they repeat or avoid the mistakes of their pasts.

I found this one a page-turning read, but it is probably my least favourite of the shortlisted books – the writing had moments of gold but wasn’t particularly brilliant, the jumping back and forth in time was occasionally confusing, and the plot was relentlessly sad. Jones is very good at ending a chapter on a cliffhanger, which pulls you on to the next one, but at times reading this felt like a bit of a chore, like I had to wade through all these people’s sadness and suffering to reach a (not wholly satisfying) ending.

Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

After The Vanishing Half, this is probably the second most hyped book on the Women’s Prize shortlist; I’ve seen a number of people absolutely rave about it. Unsettled Ground is about Jeanie and Julius, 51-year-old twins living in a cottage in Wiltshire, alone now that their mother has died. The pair have never left this part of the world – Jeanie because she has a heart condition and has always been told that she must not exert or excite herself in any way, and Julius because a childhood trauma means he can’t ride in vehicles without throwing up. Throughout the book, secrets about their mother’s life are revealed, and Jeanie and Julius have to deal with debt, poverty and the threat of losing the only home they’ve ever known.

I thought the depiction of modern-day poverty in this book was excellent – the things Jeanie and Julius do to find food and shelter, surrounded by a fast-paced, technological world that cannot even see their plight, are ingenious and heart-breaking. They are also both desperate to preserve their dignity and not be pitied, so they rarely ask for help, which is frustrating at first, but also makes total sense – when they have nothing else left, of course they would want to hold onto their pride.

Overall, though, I didn’t love this book. While I could see the great things Fuller was doing, occasionally the scaffolding of the story showed through. Certain plot points felt too convenient, even forced, which took me out of the book and made me see Fuller behind the scenes, pulling the strings.

The verdict

So, having read the entire shortlist, who do I think is going to win?

The book I would like to win, my personal favourite, is Piranesi. It is one of the more experimental books on the list; I really feel that it does something that hasn’t been done before. It’s also the story that has stayed with me the longest of all of them.

However, I predict that the winning book will be The Vanishing Half. Highly accomplished and widely loved, I think it stands the best chance of taking the grand prize.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the winner’s ceremony, and even if my favourite doesn’t win, I had an excellent time reading the shortlist. No matter what faults I might have found with some of these, the quality of this pile of books is really fantastic, so if you want to discover some excellent contemporary reads (and potentially some new favourite authors), I really recommend checking out the Women’s Prize longlist and shortlist!

What do you think? Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your predicted winner, if you have one, and the book you’ll be cheering for. 🙂

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