For the past seven years I’ve read the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlists, and it always gives us the excuse to pick up a well-known title we’ve been meaning to get to, from Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, as well as nudging us in the direction of lesser-known books, too.
This year, I’d read most of the longlisted books in advance of the shortlist announcement, and a few of my favourites didn’t make the cut, so before I review this year’s six shortlisted titles, I’d like to pause to applaud my top picks from this year’s prize.
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross is a novel for those who like to bathe themselves in rich language and magical realism. The archipelago world Ross has created glides off the page to dance around your head: a man who can flavour food with his hands; women who like to eat butterflies. It’s a heart-breaking treat.
Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé is a chorus-like fable, giving voices to those whose stories have been silenced. Steeped in Egyptian mythology, I’d recommend it for fans of Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death. Finally, Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith is the most impressive debut novel I’ve read in quite some time. Ambitious in its scope, it covers two timelines, and two missing women in Vietnam, again full of folklore, this time with a sprinkling of horror.
Now to the six shortlisted books, and let’s work up to my favourites. The title I enjoyed least from this year’s shortlist is The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Sometimes you read a book, recognise it’s not for you, but can clearly see how other people will adore it. This is one of those times. Shafak’s novel is about Ada, a teenager who has recently lost her mother, and is trying to understand the roots of her parents’ relationship, embedded in 1970s Cyprus. This is illustrated via Greek mythology and a talking fig tree, which felt a little too on-the-nose for me at times, and the tone a bit too earnest.
The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini is about Alethea Lopez, who has just turned 40 and lives in Port of Spain in Trinidad. She’s trying to decide what she wants to do with her life, and when people from her childhood collide with her present-day abusive marriage, she has to dig deep to process memories and dust off her own agency. This book has a brilliant lyrical quality to it, though I found the plot to be rather predictable in places.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich feels like it contains a bookshop. Not just because it’s set in one (based on the author’s own real-life bookshop) but because of the number of tales it strings together. This is a novel about the power of stories. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of films about filmmaking that get nominated for Oscars; books about books tend to do well in literary prizes, too — it’s not the only one on this shortlist — and that’s understandable; we’re here because we love books, after all. The Sentence is a ghost story, a crime novel, a tale of found family, indigenous history, and the pandemic. It’s definitely a patchwork, and I loved some parts of it more than others.
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki shares many similarities with The Island of Missing Trees, in that it’s about the death of a parent, migration, and it also contains a talking object. This time the surprise narrator is a book, and like with The Sentence this is a novel discussing the power of stories and who gets to tell them. With references to Borges’s Library of Babel and Pullman’s His Dark Materials, there are many philosophical and meta points to discuss and lose yourself in, as well as thought-provoking yet whimsical discussions of religion, climate change, and capitalism. Having read all of Ozeki’s work, I can safely say this is a very her book, so if you’ve enjoyed her previous titles, such as A Tale for the Time Being, I think you’ll enjoy a lot of what this has to offer.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is a book I could sink into, thoroughly trusting the author to take me from chapter to chapter. It’s a well-crafted story of marriage and mental illness. Whilst I enjoyed the reading experience of this very much, and I’d recommend the audiobook narrated by Emilia Fox, too, I think I probably would have loved it more if I hadn’t already read The Paper Palace by Miranda Crowley Heller and The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson, both of which were also longlisted for this year’s prize, and both of which also share similarities with Sorrow and Bliss in terms of family dynamics and tone. This, of course, is not a criticism of Sorrow and Bliss, but I always find it interesting to think about how the time and place in which we greet books alters our experience of what they have to offer.
My favourite book from this year’s shortlist is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. It’s one of those rare finds that fulfils so much of what I want in a book as an adult, and touches on childhood bookish joy, too. Perhaps because it’s a novel about chasing the ambitions of your younger self, but I was strongly reminded of Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, specifically the character of Petrova.
The words “epic” and “cinematic” are thrown around a lot, but this is a novel that more than deserves them. We follow the lives of Marian Graves, a woman in the early decades of the 20th century who wants to explore the world, and Hadley Baxter, an actress who is playing Marian in a Hollywood film many decades later. It examines the performative nature of self, memory and gender, and the longing to get away to some idealised version of both ourselves, and of the world — one that must exist, surely, somewhere just over the horizon.
The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on June 15. Leave a comment below telling us which titles you’re most interested in, for the chance to win a copy of all six shortlisted books.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.
Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.