Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Careless


Bess is fifteen years old when she finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s been in a long-term foster care placement since she was four, she’s never felt that she truly belongs to her foster family, and her boyfriend, Boy, has gone AWOL. The only person she can really rely on is her best friend Eshal, but Eshal has problems of her own – she’s worried that her Bangladeshi Muslim family are going to encourage her into an arranged marriage she does not want. Careless, Kirsty Capes’s debut novel, starts with Bess’s discovery of her pregnancy and then flashes back to explore her relationship with Boy and friendship with Eshal, before moving forward along the original timeline.

First things first: I enjoyed Careless much more than I expected to. This is a book about teenagers that could be read by teenagers, but I wouldn’t class it as YA and it doesn’t seem to have been sold as such. This is a relief. My problems with YA have never been that it’s written for a teenage audience but about the conventions and stereotypical assumptions that have become wrapped up with writing for that audience. Careless avoids these tropes. I’d place it alongside Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OKwhich deals sensitively and thoughtfully with alcoholism and sexuality. Like Nina, Careless is a dark and painful read – but this certainly should not exclude it from an adolescent as well as an adult readership.

Bess is a compelling protagonist. The book cleverly moves from the relative lightheartedness of early scenes with Eshal, watching the raft race at Shepperton Village Fair and chucking rubbish at an enemy’s raft, to much more harrowing scenes later on, which helps us to see Bess as a person and not just as a suffering statistic. Her world, too, is vividly evoked. Capes shuns generic council estate settings and allows us to really see the Studios Estate where Bess lives, in its everyday beauty and ugliness: ‘From my bedroom window on the estate, I can see the park, with two big horse chestnut trees on the green where the parakeets roost… And the long sloping sides of the reservoir, just beyond the farmer’s fields… I can see the River Ash Woods, where everyone goes to fly-tip and inject heroin. And then the tin houses, which are what everyone calls the pre-fabs, from after the Second World War’. 

However, I didn’t think the structure of the novel served Capes’s purposes particularly well. By positioning all that comes before the positive pregnancy test as flashback, the reader is simply waiting for Careless to catch up with itself. This messes with the pacing and also draws attention away from the most important element of the novel – the friendship between Bess and Eshal. I’ve been seeing this thriller device – pulling a scene from the middle and putting it at the beginning – more and more in books that are not thrillers. I suspect it is often advised by agents and editors, but it doesn’t work well for me as a reader. For Careless, certainly, I would have appreciated more time to get to know Bess before the book starts to revolve around her pregnancy.

There are also a few duff notes. I agree with this reviewer that Eshal’s plotline is too neatly concluded, although I imagine this came from Cape’s over-cautiousness in tackling this subject as a white writer. Bess’s voice generally works very well, but occasionally she feels like a mouthpiece for important things that Capes wants to say about the experience of being in care that probably wouldn’t come out of the mouth of a 1990s teenager. For example: ‘There’s something wrong with being in care, the care system, and it’s making us into a transaction… It’s not right, how we’re treated like a job. There’s too much emotional labour involved.’ Having said that, I thought that Cape’s handling of the reasons behind Bess entering foster care in the first place was exceptional. She tells the reader just enough so we can guess at what happened but allows us to understand it through the fragmented lens of Bess’s trauma, or what we might identify as complex PTSD.

So, a flawed book, for me, but one which I think deserves its Women’s Prize longlisting, and which certainly achieves what it’s trying to do much better than the other two novels on the list I’ve read so far. I doubt it will be shortlisted – the quote from Pandora Sykes on the cover makes me think it was the pet pick of a single judge – but I’m glad that I read it.

I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eight titles that I do want to read. This is number three. I’ve already read Great Circle and The Book of Form and Emptiness.


The Women’s Prize Longlist, 2022

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2022 has been announced! Here are some other bloggers’ reactions: Rebecca, Eric, Rachel.


First Thoughts: This is a very surprising list. There are seven books on it that I’d never heard of, and many of the titles don’t seem to have featured on anybody’s prediction list. I feel like I’ve done quite well with my predictions even though I only got four titles right (plus correctly predicting that Beautiful World, Where Are You and To Paradise wouldn’t feature). It’s a racially diverse list, certainly more so than last year’s; half of the authors are women of colour. But I feel a little uneasy about how few of the books anyone in the blogging community seems to have read. Perhaps the judges have uncovered a lot of hidden gems, and there certainly seem to be some small presses represented, which is good. But to omit so many obvious contenders feels a bit contrary to me, almost as if they deliberately wanted to surprise everyone, which I don’t think is the right spirit with which to approach the Prize. Finally, there are a lot of ghosts, contemporary historical settings (1970s, 80s, 90s…), and of course, conflicted mothers.

I was already not planning to read the entire longlist this year, and I certainly won’t be doing it now I have 14 books to read! But here are my thoughts and plans:

The Ones I’ve Read

Maggie Shipstead, Great Circle. Oh dear. I thought this Booker-shortlisted account of the life of fictional female aviator Marian Graves was likely to be on the list, but I found it clunky, melodramatic, ridiculously overlong and a bit cliched. It also has a contemporary thread that could easily have been cut without making any difference to the novel at all. It did have about fifty brilliant pages, when Shipstead describes Graves’s flight over Antarctica – but these came at the end of the novel and were not enough to save it. My review is here.

Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Oh dear again! I’m a huge Ozeki fan but I thought this was so incredibly twee. Even more so than Great Circle, it does have its strengths – the characterisation of the teenage protagonist, Benny, and his hoarder mother, Annabel, was beautifully complex. But it was far too long and had far too many lines like ‘Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it.’ My review is here.

The Ones I Already Wanted To Read

Violet Kupersmith, Build Your House Around My Body. This was on my Women’s Prize wishlist, so I’m very pleased to see it here. This Vietnam-set novel follows three women in different timelines and promises ‘eerie Vietnamese forests, rundown zoos and crowded nightclubs‘.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

Catherine Chidgey, Remote Sympathy. I usually avoid anything set during the Second World War, especially if it’s about the Holocaust, but I’m a little intrigued by this one, which sounds a bit like Audrey Magee’s The UndertakingIt focuses on the wife of a SS Sturmbannführer who lives near Buchenwald concentration camp and forms an unlikely alliance with one of the prisoners, who believes he has invented a cure for cancer.

Morowa Yejidé, Creatures of Passage. OK, so I LOVE the sound of this; it follows a woman ferrying passengers in a haunted car in late 1970s Washington DC. Definitely up for trying it.

Dawnie Walton, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. This sounds a lot like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six, which I loved – it even seems to be structured in the same way, patching together excerpts from fictional oral histories. It follows the rise of an interracial rock duo in the 1970s and explores why their partnership fell apart.

Kirsty Capes, Careless. Definitely one of the more ‘accessible’, ‘popular’ choices on the list, this is set in the 1990s and stars care-leaver Bess, written by an author who is herself care-experienced. I’m not sure this will work for me as a novel but it’s a topic I’d like to read more about.

Louise Erdrich, The Sentence. I wasn’t really sure about Erdrich’s The Round House and I haven’t read anything by her since. Still, I like the blurb of this one and I’d like to give her another go: ‘A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer.’

The Ones I Still Don’t Want To Read

Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees. I haven’t actually read anything by Shafak and I feel I should, but whenever I flick through one of her novels, I don’t feel like her prose is for me. I don’t find the blurb of this one appealing, either: two Cypriot teenagers, one Greek and one Turkish, fall in love and are parted when war breaks out.

Lisa Allen-Agostini, The Bread The Devil Knead. This looks like an interesting longlist choice from a small press, but again, the blurb isn’t calling me: it focuses on a forty-year-old Trinidadian woman who manages a boutique in Port of Spain and is dealing with both an abusive partner and an affair with her boss.

Charlotte Mendelson, The Exhibitionist. I wasn’t a fan of Mendelson’s Almost English and I’m certainly not taken by another tale of middle-class family secrets.

Meg Mason, Sorrow and Bliss. This was on my radar already and I’d already decided not to read it. This sort of novel that focuses very closely on the mental health struggles of a single protagonist is not really my thing, although it sounds like Mason can write.

Lulu Allison, Salt Lick. This is narrated by a chorus of feral cows… which is brilliant, but it really doesn’t sound like my thing.

Miranda Cowley Heller, The Paper Palace. I’d not heard of this book before I listened to Anna’s critical review of it, and I can’t say the blurb is inspiring.

Leone Ross, This One Sky Day. Another one I’d already decided against reading. It sounds like it steers too close to magical realism for my tastes.

Rachel Elliott, Flamingo. This sounds like it will be twee. I am suspicious.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

Obviously, Julia Armfield’s Our Wives Under The Sea HAS BEEN ROBBED. But apart from this TRAVESTY, I’m struggling to think of anything else I really wanted to see. Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise is an excellent novel, but it was never Women’s Prize material. I didn’t love Xóchitl González’s Olga Dies Dreamingbut I liked it a lot and I think it would have made for some great discussion. Finally, I didn’t adore Lauren Groff’s Matrix enough to be truly aggrieved that it didn’t make it, but I think it deserves to be here – especially as I think there are NO historical novels on the list set earlier than the twentieth century!

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On The Longlist

Well I am obviously pleased that Hannah Kent’s Devotion isn’t here, and I am also pleased to see no Greek myth retellings. Apart from that there’s nothing that I was really dreading!

What are your thoughts on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022: Longlist Predictions and Wishlist

Last year, I decided not to commit myself to reading the whole Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. This year, I’m going to take the same approach; I don’t see the point in forcing myself to read books which I know I won’t enjoy and which are often repetitive in terms of theme, depending on the particular interests of the judges. Nevertheless, I will still be shadowing the Prize in 2022, and here are a mix of predictions and wishes for the longlist. Books are eligible for the Prize if they were, or will be, first published in the UK between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022. The Prize will announce the longlist on the 8th March, and it will consist of sixteen books.

My List:

  • Matrix by Lauren Groff. This fits the Prize to a T, and I also enjoyed it enough that I’d be happy to see it on the longlist, although I had some reservations about its individualistic approach to a religious community. My review is here.
  • Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman. This debut sounds different enough to the previous set of Greek retellings and yet similar enough to the Prize’s usual penchant for feminist historical fiction that it might stand a chance. Set in Georgian London, ‘the discovery of a mysterious ancient Greek vase sets in motion conspiracies, revelations and romance’.
  • Devotion by Hannah Kent. I thought this was unintentionally hilarious, so I’m certainly not backing it for the longlist, but it seems to tick a lot of the Prize’s boxes.
  • The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. I thought this landed somewhat awkwardly between office satire and speculative fiction, but I think it has a good shot. My review is here.
  • The Fell by Sarah Moss. I have a sinking feeling the Prize might finally recognise Moss this year, with what I think is easily her weakest novel. My review is here.
  • Love Marriage by Monica Ali. I didn’t like Brick Lane and have seen very mixed reviews of this one, so I’m hoping it doesn’t make the list, but I think it might. It focuses on a young doctor, the daughter of Indian immigrants, ‘navigating love and family’. 
  • Fault Lines by Emily Itami. The Prize often shortlists books about motherhood, so this Tokyo-set debut might fit the bill.
  • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. I thought this was slow, predictable and dull until the virtuosic final section set in the Antarctic, but I slogged my way through it so now I kind of want it to be longlisted just to make that effort more worthwhile. My review is here.
  • Our Wives Under The Sea by Julia Armfield. I’m so looking forward to this one, which combines a lot of my favourite things in fiction: lesbians, the ocean, deep-sea diving and a creepy mystery!
  • Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González. Although I had some concerns about this debut, it was so original and memorable that I’d love to see it on the longlist. My review is here.
  • The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. Again, this is easily her weakest novel and I found it rather twee, but it might make it onto the list. My review is here.
  • A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe. This historical debut, focusing on the Aberfan disaster, seems to be getting a lot of buzz.
  • Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. Definitely a wish rather than a prediction, but I really want to read this Vietnam-set novel, which follows three women in three different timelines.
  • Wahala by Nikki May. Following three Nigerian-English friends living in London, this debut sounds like it could be one of the lighter titles longlisted for the Prize.
  • These Days by Lucy Caldwell. I’d like to see this Belfast-set WWII novel on the longlist, as I have an ARC and will be reading it anyway!
  • The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. I’m not a Shafak fan but I can see this Cyprus-set novel making the longlist.

I’m also going to stick my neck out and say that neither To Paradise nor Beautiful World, Where Are You will make the longlist, even though I enjoyed both novels very much and think they certainly deserve to be there!

What are your predictions for the Women’s Prize 2022 longlist? What would you like to see there? (Have I, as usual, named any titles that are not actually eligible this year?)