Women’s Prize for Fiction: the contenders

Sian Meades-Williams 6 September 2021

This years shortlist is richly diverse, with stories that span from the warm sands of Barbados to the rural outskirts of an English town. Sian Meades-Williams takes a look at the contenders

This year's Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on September 8, with the winner being awarded £30,000. Here’s the lowdown on this year’s shortlist—each of the six authors is receiving their first nomination—and our predictions about who might take home the prize.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

How the One-Armed sister sweeps her house book cover

The Women’s Prize has had five debut winners before, and it would be brilliant to see Cherie Jones joining that list. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is a fearless story of marriage and sacrifice which lays bare the darker side of a Barbados tourist town.

It’s a visceral novel with a bold cast of characters. With themes of violence and poverty, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a brutal read but it’s a story that’s told with poetry and optimism. It’s the hope that keeps you reading this one, no matter how unflinching the story becomes.

The heart of the Women’s Prize is giving book lovers the chance to discover new writing talent. I hadn’t heard of How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House until the list was announced and I’m delighted to have read it. It’s perhaps a little raw to be crowned the winner, but I’ll seek out Cherie Jones’s next book. And the one after that.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Unsettled Ground book cover

Right from the start of Fuller’s Unsettled Ground, you are rooting for Jeannie to get the happy ending. You want to see her have a good life, a slightly easier life, however unconventional. Fuller’s skilled portrayal of brother and sister Jeannie and Julius’s world on the fringes of society makes for a beautifully rich novel.

Unsettled Ground feels familiar—we all know of families like the Seeder twins who are on the outskirts of our communities. Fuller’s novel isn’t quite as original as others on the list (in fact if you enjoyed it, you’ll probably also like Helen Dunmore’s inaugural winner A Spell of Winter, and 2021 longlisted Small Pleasures), but it’s a cracking way to spend a weekend.

No-one is Talking about This by Patricia Lockwood

No One is Talking about this book cover

One of the best things about the Women’s Prize is that it’s always going to start a debate. There will inevitably be a book on the shortlist that leaves you cold when everyone else you know loved it.

For me, that was the shortlist’s second debut: Patricia Lockwood’s No-One Is Talking About This.

A book told through viral social media posts and memes should have been right up my street, (especially given my overuse of social media), but I found it really hard to engage with the stark vignettes and never managed to get into the story. This is a book that really seems to divide opinion but if you enjoy it, the glowing reviews suggest you’ll hold it very close to your heart.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half book cover

The Vignes twins are identical, but their lives take very different paths after they leave home together as teenagers. One sister returns home to the small, southern community she grew up in. The other is passing as white. As the sisters find their way back to one another, The Vanishing Half  becomes a beautiful and emotional family saga that takes a very hard look at America’s racial history.

The Vanishing Half  is one of those jaw-dropping, life-changing novels that you thrust into everyone’s hands. It’s the one I’m rooting for.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

The Transcendent Kingdom book cover

I had such high hopes for Transcendent Kingdom after reading Yaa Gyasi’s 2017 debut Homegoing. The novel’s protagonist Gifty follows Gyasi’s own path as a Ghanian whose family emigrated to Alabama. Despite my hopes, I really struggled to enjoy Transcendent Kingdom and felt that the entire novel was incredibly sad.

Perhaps that’s to be expected—drug addiction and depression aren’t the cheeriest of topics—but there was nothing in the way of optimism, and little change in the book’s trudging pace. I may not have gelled with this one but I’ll still read every book Yaa Gyasi writes. Homegoing was enough to keep me coming back for more.

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke

Piranesi book cover

I’ve never read a book like Piranesi. To quote Women’s Prize Chair and previous winner Bernadine Evaristo, it is “completely original”.

Much like the book’s setting of the House, there’s no easy way into this novel. You learn its workings through Piranesi’s journal entries and that takes some time to get the measure of. Something finally clicked about a third of the way through. Then I was completely sucked in and savouring every page.

Even when you’ve finished you might not quite be able to put your finger on what’s so incredible about it. Piranesi is impossible to pigeon hole and all the better for it.

While my personal favourite is undoubtedly The Vanishing Half  I do think Susannah Clarke will be crowned for Piranesi at this year’s awards. She would be an enormously worthy winner.

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