I have now read fifteen of the sixteen titles longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and, having read Hilary Mantel’s previous two Cromwell novels, I have a pretty clear idea of how The Mirror and The Light is going to pan out. (I didn’t want to rush through it before the longlist was announced, but I have a beautiful hardback copy waiting for me!) THEREFORE, it’s time to present my own personal shortlist wish list. Which is:
Honourable mention: Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.
This is a strange set of picks for me, because books that I thought definitely wouldn’t be strong enough to make the shortlist when it was first announced (e.g. Queenie, Djinn Patrol) have risen up the ranks simply because many of the other longlisted titles were so disappointing. This is definitely the weakest Women’s Prize longlist I’ve read since I seriously started following the Prize, and not only that, it’s depressingly repetitive; too many family sagas, too many books about women, war and rape, another classical retelling.
Nevertheless, the six books above are all solid reads that I’d enthusiastically recommend, and here’s why I chose each of them:
The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel. As I admitted above, I have not yet read this third instalment in her Tudor trilogy, but it’s going to be EPIC. I reviewed Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies here.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. We all know this is an excellent novel, narrated by twelve black* British* women (*one of whom identifies as non-binary, one of whom believes herself to be white), and telling the long histories of black people and of black feminism in Britain. I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the longlist.
Weather by Jenny Offill. I was unexpectedly blown away by this slender book that follows Lizzie, a librarian who is musing fearfully and hilariously about the future. Offill writes brilliantly, but she also traces Lizzie’s thought processes with terrifying skill.
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. This compelling narrative jumps between Singapore during the Second World War and at the beginning of the twenty-first century to tell the harrowing but humanised story of Wang Di, who is forced into sex slavery in a Japanese military brothel.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. Narrated by a nine-year-old boy who lives in the slums of New Delhi, this debut novel has some flaws, but it ultimately won me over with its clever use of urban legend and its devastating emotional impact. This is one of the few novels on the longlist that I won’t forget.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. Billed as a fun read, this debut has unexpected depths as it deals with the misogynoir Queenie experiences as she looks for love as a young black woman in London. It satisfyingly reinvents the chick lit genre, and its witty originality puts it streets ahead of most of the longlist.
However, what I want to see shortlisted isn’t necessarily what I actually think will be shortlisted, so, regardless of my personal preferences, here are six predictions:
My logic, in order of certainty:
- I think both The Mirror and The Light and Girl, Woman, Other are dead certs. I know that Girl, Woman, Other already won the Booker, but given that this was somewhat overshadowed by Evaristo’s controversial joint win with Atwood, I think the Women’s Prize will leap at the chance to recognise her again. And it’s a great book!
- I’m almost as certain that Hamnet will be shortlisted. I think the Women’s Prize are belatedly waking up to the fact that they’ve ignored Maggie O’Farrell all these years, and this novel has received a lot of critical acclaim and attention.
- Weather is so painfully relevant, and its length sets off the blockbusters on this list nicely. It’s also very obviously different to a lot of the other longlistees.
- I wasn’t a huge fan of Dominicana, but after the furore over American Dirt, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prize wanted to honour a Latina writer.
- I hate family sagas, but the judges clearly love them, so at least one will be on the shortlist. As there are quite a few big hitters on this imagined shortlist, they might be tempted to go for something that’s more left-field than The Dutch House or Fleishman Is In Trouble, and I wonder if that might be Red At The Bone, even though I thought it was completely forgettable.
Edit 22/4/20: The actual shortlist is here!
First thoughts: I’m extremely chuffed to have predicted five out of six of the shortlistees, which is my best hit rate ever for any prize list. I’m obviously less pleased that only three of the titles I wanted made it to the shortlist, especially as this had the corollary of making this a less diverse shortlist than last year’s. In particular, I think Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared was cheated of a spot, especially as I feel like it deserves more attention.
However, I’m not devastated to see any of these titles on the shortlist. (I would have been very cross if any of Girl, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone or The Most Fun We Ever Had had made it). I’m closest to being annoyed about the presence of A Thousand Ships, which I thought had serious structural problems, despite some very strong individual chapters. I also think that it would have had to have been superb to justify the Prize shortlisting another Greek myth retelling, and it really isn’t. But I guess my biggest misgiving about this book is that it’s so on-the-nose about how it wants to ‘tell the untold story of the women of the Trojan war’, which is (a) not untold, even by classical authors (b) often not actually told by this novel, e.g. Penelope’s chapters focus on Odysseus, and (c) not really something I want to see the Women’s Prize rewarding, because I want to read great fiction by women, not fiction that won’t let us forget about its Important Feminist Purpose. But having said that, A Thousand Ships is certainly not devoid of literary merit.
The other thing about this shortlist is that it feels like there are only three books from it that can actually win the Prize, which is a bit weird. I’d be amazed if anything other than The Mirror and the Light, Girl, Woman, Other or Hamnet took it in September. Personally, I’ll be backing one of the first two.
I’ll post again once I’ve read The Mirror and The Light with my final ranking order and hopes/predictions for the winner.
What do you think of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist?
My reviews of the fifteen titles I’ve read can be found at these links: Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; Queenie; Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We Disappeared; A Thousand Ships; Hamnet; Actress; Weather; Fleishman Is In Trouble; Red at the Bone; The Most Fun We Ever Had.