There are so many book awards out there, and they all have different characters. By this, I mean that there are some whose winners I generally find aren’t to my personal taste (the Booker), there are some whose winners are a real mixed bag (the Pulitzer), and there are some whose winners I, with only a few exceptions, absolutely love (the Women’s Prize). The Women’s Prize was formerly known as the Orange Prize, the Bailey’s Prize and, as the current name would suggest, it is awarded to a woman (for the best original full-length novel published in English in the UK).
I’ve read all of the 24 Women’s Prize winners and at least 20 other shortlisted titles, and there’s only one I can pick out as being a book I really didn’t enjoy (hint: it only made the Women’s Prize shortlist, but it did win the Booker a few years ago). Most of the winners I’ve liked, really liked, or absolutely loved, but there were some I loved more than others. In anticipation for the 25th award being announced next week, I’ve ranked all the winners and split it up into two posts. Catch my top 10 on the day of the prize announcement next Wednesday, and here are my choices for 24 to 11 (but even these books on the “bottom” half of the list are still well worth a read!).
24. When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant. Set in 1946, the novel follows a young woman who moves from London to Tel Aviv and lives in a kibbutz, where she explores Jewish identity across cultures. I found the book to be too didactic to really grip me. While the setting and period were extremely interesting, the protagonist was too insubstantial to offer much either as a stand-in for the reader learning about the conflicts and customs of the time and place, or as a character in her own right. There were flashes of something really fascinating, but overall it felt like a book that neither covered the complexity of the situation nor provided a plot that brought a huge level of entertainment to complement its historical details.
23. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville. This is a very slice-of-life story, set in a small, rural town in Australia and featuring people who are not particularly interesting or charming. And yet there’s something still very compelling about it. Everybody knows everybody’s business, even though there isn’t really much business to be known. And Grenville relays the events (or lack thereof) with dry humour and witty turns of phrase to make it an entertaining tale.
22. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The novel intertwines two folk stories and a Balkan setting that’s very unfamiliar to me to create a melancholy, poignant meditation on death, family, religion, and violence. It’s definitely an experimental and artistic book, with more focus on the beautiful writing than the plot, and it loses momentum a little bit as it goes. Still, I found it to be well worth reading for the fact way it weaves mythology and folklore into historical and contemporary life, and for the graceful prose that gives the novel a poetic feel.
21. Property by Valerie Martin. It’s a compelling novel, but it doesn’t do enough to interrogate the truly evil mindset of its slave-owning protagonist, and I can’t tell if it expects the same from us as audience or not. I’m not expecting a book where she recognises her wrongs and becomes a better person, as realistically few slaveowners did; nor did I need a story where she gets her comeuppance because, again, most of those in her situation did not suffer for their capital crime of owning another soul. But even as we abhor our cruelty, with its title correlating Manon’s situation with those of her slaves and with her voice as the only point of view allowed to be heard, we seem to be expected to still emphathise with her and that’s something I was unwilling to do.
20. May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Holmes. Sprawling, speeding through plot notes, sometimes satirical and occasionally earnest, full of threads that often never quite diverge—this is a difficult novel to describe and honestly I’m not even sure why I enjoyed it as much as I did. I wouldn’t exactly call it a “fun” read all though it does have plenty of darkly comic moments, but there’s something very entertaining about its somewhat unnerving qualities. If you’re looking for a traditional story or writing style, this won’t be the one for you, but if you’re open to something experimental, it might be one worth checking out.
19. A Crime in the Neighbourhood by Suzanne Berne. In 1973, a young boy is murdered in a peaceful suburb, and the neighbourhood is thrown into a frenzy of panic and suspicion. The story is less about the crime and more about how people react when something shakes their bucolic existence. Marsha, the protagonist, is both a child observing the gossip, lies, and sidelong glances between the adults of the town, and an adult herself looking back on the situation. It’s definitely a coming-of-age story more than a mystery, and it captures the sense of place and time in a way that is equally nostalgic and discomforting.
18. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. This is one of those books that I can acknowledge and appreciate is very good, with excellent writing that delves deep into race, class, gender, and societal convention/unconvention, but it just didn’t resonate with me emotionally the way I think it was meant to. I love a sprawling family drama, but the level of interest I had in various storylines was so mismatched that the bad ones (Howard, ugh) tore me away from the ones I found fascinating (Zora in the poetry class), and the number of them gave short shrift to some I thought could be really compelling (the painting and the will) while making others feel like afterthoughts (the rivalry of the professors, which seemed like it would be the main plotline and ended up feeling like an aside).
17. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Although this novel was a massive bestseller a made into a film, I somehow never found out anything about the plot until I read it last year, and it shocked me to my core. In case you are the same, I will try to keep the details vague and brief: the novel is told in epistolary form, letters from a woman to her husband about their incarcerated son. The novel’s pacing is so gripping as it slowly comes to reveal what Kevin has done, and the emotion in it so powerful that I actually felt a bit sick to my stomach when I finally reached the climax.
16. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. There’s such a strong sense of place in this book. It nearly demands you use your every sense—seeing and hearing and smelling the 1930s Mexico setting that Kingsolver paints colours as rich as those that appear in Rivera’s and Kahlo’s works. There are so many threads and layers that draw together over time, moments that come to make sense as you learn more about protagonist Harrison Shepherd’s childhood in Mexico and adulthood in the United States, and context that fills in the lacunae (gaps in a manuscript or text) of the title.
15. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. This is the last Women’s Prize winner I read; I only finished it last week after requesting it through the local library system. Dark, passionate, and intriguing, this novel is a literary gothic that follows a brother and sister abandoned by their parents to live in a crumbling old manor house with their grandfather. Their relationship is intense and the book hits all the notes of a satisfying gothic story. However, despite the high stakes I felt like the payoff wasn’t quite as thrilling as I would’ve hoped. Still, it’s an exciting read and a worthy winner of the very first Women’s Prize.
14. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Ranking just about my most-recent read, this is the first winner I read, before I even knew what the Women’s Prize was. My mother recommended it to me, and I can still picture the copy she lent me, with its slightly waterstained pages (probably from reading by the pool). It’s a novel based loosely on a real-life event where the Japanese ambassador to Peru and his guests were taken hostage for months by a terrorist organisation. The novel focuses on an American opera singer who is meant to perform at the event before the terrorists arrive, and music figures heavily into this story that looks at shared humanity and emotion.
13. Small Island by Andrea Levy. Migration, racism, conflict, class differences; Small Island may be set during and after the second World War, but its themes resonate just as much today. Stylistically, it’s interesting in its non-chronological order that moves back and forth to reveal new layers of each of the four POV characters each time. The dialect of each character is what really makes the novel for me; Levy captures the voices of the Jamaican immigrants, the white, working-class British woman, the American soldiers, each with their own cadences and vocabulary that lets you hear them in your mind as you read. Shortly after reading the novel, I saw this clip of a staged version by the National Theatre in London, and it really brought it all together for me, so I’d definitely recommend giving it a watch:
12. Larry’s Party by Carol Shields. This is the story of a man who doesn’t lead what most of us would call a particularly interesting life (although his occupation designing hedge mazes is certainly out of the ordinary), and there isn’t much drama in it or in the plot (even a failed relationship that ends with what could be a bang turns out to be more of a whimper thanks to the involved characters’ calmness and maturity) but Larry is such a likable, enjoyable person to read about that the story remains a joy to read. Larry lives a life that I think many of us would be content to live; it’s not very adventurous but it’s happy and fulfilled, and as we follow him through the decades we see him learn about family, love, and grow into himself. He rejects certain traditional constructs of masculinity and the story offers thoughtful critique throughout. It’s not an eventful story, but it’s an insightful one, and well worth the read.
11. Home by Marilynn Robinson. Clearly I’m such a fan of this sort of quiet, small-town family drama slice-of-life novel. Full of reflections on home (as the title indicates), family, faith, and dignity, there’s not much action in this story but the richness of the characters’ relationships and personal struggles bring so much complexity to the book. The theological undertones guide the characters’ motivations and actions; however, it doesn’t preach but rather ponders the certainty of sin and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. A soft and compassionate read.
Stay tuned for Wednesday to read about my top 10! And please tell me your favourite Women’s Prize winners or shortlisted titles!