Tonight, my favourite literary prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announces its 2021 winner. Every year, I eagerly await this award—I’ve read every winner so far (you can read my ranking of all the previous winners HERE). This year, regardless of who takes the prize, I’ll have already read the winning novel, as I’ve read all of the nominees on the 2021 shortlist. While there were two books on the list I particularly loved, any of the six shortlisted novels would be a worthy addition to the list of winners.
I’ve already shared my reviews on each of these books on my Goodreads account and in my monthly reads posts, but if you need a refresher or you’re trying to decide which of these fabulous shortlisted novels to add to your own TBR, here is my ranking and my thoughts on this year’s shortlist.
1. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
I thought this book was going to be one thing—a smart and funny look at the life you live when you are Extremely Online—and it was that thing, but it was also so much more. I didn’t read too much about the novel before starting it; it didn’t matter what it was about because I think Patricia Lockwood’s writing is just incredible and I would have picked it up no matter what, but because I didn’t look into it at all I didn’t realise how absolutely devastating it was also going to be. It’s a novel of two halves and a work in part of autofiction, and those things work in tandem to create the gut punch that is this book.
It’s an interesting one because for some bits of it you do, yourself, have to be Extremely Online to understand the references (or at least Semi Online as I would expect most people know about the blinking white guy gif). I loved that the protagonist got her internet fame as a part of Weird Twitter rather than something more overtly profound (“Can a dog have twins,” the protagonist’s initial viral moment is goofy and charming and very different than the piece that first brought online fame to Lockwood herself).
It’ll also be interesting to see how books like this and Fake Accounts fare in a few years once the memes they reference are no longer part of the zeitgeist, but honestly in the case of No One is Talking About This I don’t think it’ll matter because the deeper themes of the book are forever universal. It’s a story about a form of escapism that many of us turn to to varying degrees, abutting something that cannot be escaped by entering ‘the portal,’ and the ways we cope with, manage, and reflect on grief, mixed with equally poignant, powerful, and often funny reflections on art, familial love, and care.
It’s difficult to categorise this book. It’s not rare to read a book that is both funny and sad, but it’s much more uncommon to read a book that is both so funny and so sad that you find yourself laughing out loud even as tears are streaming down your face (“bitch if this even happens while you were looking at Jason Momoa pics” is what did it for me). A truly marvellous read.
2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
I was very curious to read this book because Clarke’s other novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is a hefty tome of over 700 pages, while Piranesi doesn’t even crack the 300 mark. I had just assumed her style was dense and verbose, but clearly this book said otherwise. And what a gem it is. Piranesi is an immensely satisfying and magical read; the prose is so tight but so vivid, and it’s almost hypnotic in its qualities. Everything that happened felt well-earned, like each puzzle piece finding it’s place.
3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
I had this book recommended to me on all sides—from reviews, from my friends, from my mom—so I was pretty certain it would be fantastic and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Deftly changing between perspectives, narratives, and timelines, The Vanishing Half is so carefully and thoughtfully balanced. We get just enough time with each character and story to know them exactly as much as Bennett wants us too (although I could have spent more time with Jude any day). A really special, thought-provoking, and richly complex book to read.
4. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
A dark and quiet book about two middle-aged siblings whose lives are thrown into disarray when their mother—with whom they live, on whom they depend, with whom they eke out a living through selling produce from the garden and doing various odd jobs around their rural village—suddenly dies. They, particularly Jeanie who is the main POV of the novel, have little sense of independence and are left behind in a world that is far more modern than their run-down cottage with its outdoor privy and kerosene lamps would suggest. The story of their attempts to maintain their lives and move forward is sometimes frustrating in their refusal to accept assistance where it is genuinely offered, although understandable in their long-belated first tentative steps toward independence, devastating in their failures, and uplifting in their successes. As family secrets unravel and are revealed and they begin to learn more about a past they never knew—and a future they were denied?—the book guides you through with tense, evocative writing. It’s a slow, atmospheric book, in no way a “thriller” in the traditional sense, but it had me on the edge of my seat waiting to see how it would all shake out.
5. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Although not as epic as her absolutely stunning debut, Homegoing, Transcendent Kingdom is continuing to prove that Yaa Gyasi is one of the most exciting newer voices in contemporary fiction. Her protagonists are so rich and authentic, and the way she weaves science, religion, family, loss, and personal discovery —all subjects immensely complex in themselves but even moreso when considered together—into one tapestry of a story is just fantastic.
6. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
It can be tough to read a story that you know isn’t going to have a happy ending for anyone involved. A story of generational trauma and abuse, violence, poverty, misogyny—there is no end to the sadness that befalls Lala and everyone else in the story. It’s an authentic story, and written very well (I wouldn’t put it in the “misery porn” category anyway, despite the unrelenting bleakness) but that doesn’t make it any more bearable to read. Where I think the novel struggles is in creating a world around Lala. For example, it felt like Mira was supposed to be a foil for her, a contrasting and intersecting storyline, but Mira never feels as developed as Lala and so the comparison doesn’t feel quite as complete as it should. The ending also feels very abrupt. What I liked best about this novel was the writing style, rhythmic and full of imagery that paints the picture of the beach and the tragedy in equal measures.