Today we will find out the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020!
First things first: I absolutely lost steam. I was powering through these books and then I wasn’t. There is no way I will finish the longlist in time for the shortlist announcement and I am very unsure if I will keep up with the project given how very much I am dreading some of the books I do not own yet and how very much I disliked a few of the books I have already read.
Overall thoughts: I find this year’s list distinctly uninspiring. I obviously have a very different taste to the judges – and while that is maybe to be expected, the degree to which I disagree what constitutes Great Fiction made this in many cases a very frustrating journey for me. For the record, what I realized while reading books that did not work for me en masse for this project was that I am looking for the following when it comes to Literary Fiction: great prose and/or great structure, ideally coupled with interesting characters (but that is not necessary). The books on this year’s longlist are mostly told more conventionally and focus on plot and/or horrible characters. I found many themes of this year’s crop of books repetitive: there are an endless number of family sagas, often focussing on rich white families, a number of war books, many many books featuring horrible parents. Even the books I enjoyed this year are not likely to become all-time favourites of mine, unlike last year where quite a few books are still vividly both in my memory and my feelings.
As always, it was a joy to be reading this with my Women’s Prize group: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Marija, Emily (Sarah looked at the longlist and cleverly noped out right then and there). They even made the horrible experience that was reading Girl bearable because we were all in accord here. In general, we did struggle with this list a lot more than last year: of the 16 books, 6 have gotten an average rating of 3-stars or lower from us collectively, with one getting the frankly impressive low rating of 1.2 stars.
Of the books I have read so far, this is my current ranking:
- Actress by Anne Enright (review): 5 out of 5 stars
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review): 4.5 out of 5 stars
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (currently reading)
- Weather by Jenny Offill (review): 4 out of 5 stars
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review): 3.5 out of 5 stars
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (review): 3 out of 5 stars
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo (DNF)
- Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review): 2 out of 5 stars
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review): 1.5 out of 5 stars
- Girl by Edna O’Brien (review): 1 out of 5 stars
Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
I have read the first few pages of Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and did not love it (I am not very happy with its glib tone and then sudden introduction of miscarriage – but I am willing to at some point keep reading and see if that changes), and the same is true for Dominicana by Angie Cruz, which I did not hate but I cannot see giving more than 3 stars to. I do already own a copy of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara, so chances are I will get to it eventually.
Prediction for the shortlist:
I don’t even have properly have a wish list this year – and most weirdly, I am actively rooting for the “big name”-authors on the list which is unusual for me because I do really love a well-excecuted debut novel.
Actress by Anne Enright
My favourite of the books I have read, I thought this book handled this year’s unofficial theme of motherhood the best. The narrator’s warmth towards her mother while not being blind to her weaknesses was wonderful to read. Anne Enright’s prose is excellent and the book’s nonlinear stream-of-consciousness structure worked brilliantly, especially in the impeccably narrated audiobook.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Maybe it is odd that I am including a book I have no interest in reading but by all accounts does Mantel achieve what she set out to do here. Her books seem to work brilliantly for people who enjoy this kind of character-focused and impeccably researched historical fiction and the reviews for this have been mostly favourable. As I have said before, I do love when authors are at the top of their games.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
The only book I had read before the longlist announcement, this is a masterpiece that should have won the Booker Prize on its own. Evaristo’s essemble cast is masterful, her prose stunning, and this book has stayed with me since I read it. Evaristo has a lot of warmth for her characters, even those who make stupid decisions. This does feature some less-than-amazing mother figures, so there’s that (it really becomes an overwhelming theme on this longlist!).
I would be very happy if this ultimately won.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
While I am not done with the book yet, I am enjoying it a whole lot. Again, I love O’Farrell’s prose (it really often comes down to this for me apparently) and the structure works. I find the way in which she sets out to tell this story masterful and I am enjoying how on the periphery Shakespeare is for many of the scenes. It does feature a horrible mother figure, but at least we are not supposed to empathize (I don’t think).
Weather by Jenny Offill
I enjoyed this a whole lot – but I do like this kind of navel-gazy, stylized writing, even if I usually encounter it more in non-fiction than in fiction. The pervasive dread of this book becomes ever more timely, especially since whatever hell we landed in right now. I thought it was cleverly done and stripped down just enough to be perfectly, bite-sized, brilliantly done.
How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
While I have not read this book and honestly do not know if I will if it doesn’t end up being shortlisted, this seems a likely contender. Of the war novels this seems to be the more successful one and the one that tackles trauma in the most nuanced way. (aside: if Girl makes the shortlist I will riot.) It would also stop the shortlist from being frighteningly UK and US centric.