Announced on 21 April, the shortlist features six books by women writers that explore historical fiction, contemporary race relations and relationships of many kinds.
There really is something for every taste in this collection of top-notch reads that reflect the best in women’s writing right now.
What’s the prize for?
The Women’s Prize for Fiction – previously known as the Orange Prize and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction – is an annual prize that rewards the best in full-length fiction by women across the world. 2020 marks its 25th anniversary and with previous winners including Ali Smith, Andrea Levy and Zadie Smith, the bar is set pretty high for this year’s prize-winner.
The judging panel, which was chaired by businesswoman Martha Lane Fox and included writer and activist Scarlett Curtis, Melanie Eusebe, co-founder of the Black British Business Awards, author and comedian Viv Groskop, and bestselling author Paula Hawkins, read through hundreds of books to create the 16-strong longlist from which its top six were chosen.
As well as celebrating excellence and diversity in women’s writing, the judges sought to provide comfort to readers through the shortlist during a time of global crisis. Martha Lane Fox said: “We are all living in challenging, sad and complex times so incredible stories provide hope, a moment of escape and a point of connection now more than ever. We are all so proud of these books – all readers will find solace if they pick one up.”
Who’s on the shortlist?
The shortlist features a mixture of literary stalwarts and newer writers:
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
- The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
- Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
- Weather by Jenny Offill
Hilary Mantel, who is the first British writer and only woman to have won the Man Booker Prize twice, is the most lauded of the bunch and The Mirror and the Light, the conclusion to her epic Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is set to be featured on many more literary prize lists this year.
Maggie O’Farrell is a hugely popular author of eight books but has never been nominated for the prize before, while Bernardine Evaristo jointly took home the Man Booker Prize in 2019 with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.
The other three authors are perhaps less well known but their work is equally powerful.
What are the books about?
The six books are diverse in their subject matter, but each tries to reconcile their characters’ struggles to find a place in the world.
Haynes, Mantel and O’Farrell reimagine the Trojan Wars, Tudor dynasty and Shakespeare’s personal life to reframe histories that are so familiar to us, while Evaristo, Cruz and Offill explore the social norms of our recent past and contemporary world.
Here’s a guide to the shortlist:
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up within the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she has to say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate. So, on New Year’s Day, 1965, Ana leaves behind everything she knows and becomes Ana Ruiz, a wife confined to a cold six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights. Lonely and miserable, Ana hatches a reckless plan to escape. But at the bus terminal, she is stopped by Cesar, Juan’s free-spirited younger brother, who convinces her to stay.
As the Dominican Republic slides into political turmoil, Juan returns to protect his family’s assets, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Suddenly, Ana is free to take English lessons at a local church, lie on the beach at Coney Island, see a movie at Radio City Music Hall, go dancing with Cesar, and imagine the possibility of a different kind of life in America. When Juan returns, Ana must decide once again between her heart and her duty to her family.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
This is Britain as you’ve never read it. This is Britain as it has never been told.
From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the 20th century to the teens of the 21st, Girl, Woman, Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope…
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them…
In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash.
The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.
Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?
Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
Two extraordinary people. A love that draws them together. A loss that threatens to tear them apart.
On a summer’s day in 1596, a young girl in Stratford-upon-Avon takes to her bed with a fever. Her twin brother, Hamnet, searches everywhere for help. Why is nobody at home?
Their mother, Agnes, is over a mile away, in the garden where she grows medicinal herbs. Their father is working in London. Neither parent knows that one of the children will not survive the week.
Weather by Jenny Offill
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practise her other calling: as an unofficial shrink. For years, she has supported her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization.
As she dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to acknowledge the limits of what she can do. But if she can’t save others, then what, or who, might save her?
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