It has become a bit of a tradition for me to review the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for TOAST, and it’s that time of year again, so let’s dive in! The longlist of 16 books was announced in March, and now a shortlist of six books is going head-to-head; the winner will be announced on the 14th June.
I have read the entire longlist, so before I tell you my thoughts on the final six, let me tell you about some of my favourite books from this year’s longlist which didn’t make the cut.
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow is a poetic family saga. It is sharp and precise; every word on the page has earned its place. Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova is a grungy little book set in an independent cinema — think Ottessa Moshfegh meets Muriel Spark. Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin is a layered piece about a family moving to the UK after the Vietnam War. Inspired by the author’s family history, and novels such as Human Acts by Han Kang, it’s a short book with a lot to say. The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff dances between hilarious and deadly serious. A story about male violence against women, it explores the caste system in India, surprising friendships and outrageous gossip. Finally, I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel is a wicked book with a delightfully detestable narrator who will make you laugh and also doubt yourself.
Now, to the shortlist. There are two books on this year’s list that were sadly not my cup of tea. Pod by Laline Paull is a book that says lots of necessary things about the climate crisis and displacement, but – told from the point of view of a dolphin, and other characters – I was unable to suspend my disbelief. Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris is a novel set during the siege of Sarajevo, and the main character paints bridges, a symbolism for peace. Whilst it is a moving book, it has some heavy-handed imagery, which took me out of the story. However, please check out these titles if they appeal to you — we all love different things!
There were a lot of debuts on this year’s list and Trespasses by Louise Kennedy is one of them. Set in a small town outside Belfast, we follow Cushla, a teacher who is trying to help her young students forget about the Troubles, but the outside world keeps seeping into their classroom, and every part of their lives. This well-crafted novel is a series of "if onlys", and though the ending felt a little predictable, I think that was the point: it’s a crushing inevitability, grabbing at the reader throughout.
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks is a book I’d particularly recommend on audio. Yamaye loves dub music and raves, visiting her favourite club, the Crypt, as an escape from her flat where “grey-white curtains billow like spirits… and metal coffin lifts shuttle between heaven and hell.” A novel about excavating the past, and raising up Black women’s voices, the audiobook of Fire Rush includes music, and Yamaye’s singing, so with headphones on, you feel as though the novel is dancing all around you.
There are two books on the shortlist by previous winners of The Women’s Prize. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver uses Dickens as a jumping-off point for discussing poverty in modern-day Appalachia, though you don’t need to have read his novel to appreciate this one. Whilst it wasn’t my favourite book out of the six, I thought its voice was very strong, and the writing itself, on a sentence-based level, was stunning. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took this year’s prize.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell was a book I reviewed earlier this year: a historical novel reimagining the short life of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, a woman rumoured to have been murdered by her husband. The reader is told this in a whisper before the story begins, allowing a sense of unease to permeate. Using portraiture as a metaphor for viewing characters differently depending on the light, it’s a rich text with a twist or two up its sleeve.
Have you read any of this year’s Women’s Prize books? Let us know in a comment below for the chance to win a copy of this year’s six shortlisted titles. The giveaway winner will be selected at random, and we will email you if you are successful. Good luck!
The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on the 14th June.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.