The Women’s Prize for Fiction is my favourite literary prize. I almost always enjoy any one of the shortlisted books or winners that I read. After making my way through all of the previous winners, last year I read all of the shortlisted books for 2021, and I’ve done the same again this year.
It’s an extremely strong field this year, with three books in particular that I would consider very worthy if they should win — but you couldn’t really go wrong with any of them. The Women’s Prize announces its winner this week (June 15), and I’ll definitely be looking forward to see which of these novels takes home the top honour.
Below is my ranking and reviews of all six of the shortlisted nominees:
- The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak
This novel is magical. There’s no better word to describe it. In 1970s Cyprus, two teenagers — one Greek and one Turkish — fall in love despite the backdrop of conflict between their cultures. In the 2010s in London, their daughter Ada begins to learn about the history of the family she has mostly never met and the homeland she had never seen. In between, there is a fig tree, who narrates some passages of the novel through allegory and natural imagery that enhances the magical realism of the novel and paints a stunning picture of heartbreak and resilience.
A deeply moving and empathetic book about violence, prejudice, love, and loss, every character is fully realised, from the protagonist and her parents, to her aunt that helps to begin to draw back the curtain on Cyprus’ tumultuous past, to the tavern owners who provide a refuge for the young lovers. Each revelation brought me the same swell of emotion as it did Ada.
The writing is lyrical and beautiful, reflective of the story’s focus on nature and crafting an image of the beloved country left behind. This was my first encounter with Shafak’s writing, and it definitely won’t be my last, and if I were choosing this year’s Women’s Prize winner, this would be my pick.
2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
A sprawling tome of a book, this had been on my to-read list long before the shortlist or even longlist announcement, and it definitely lived up to expectations. There were multiple times while reading this novel that I nearly looked up the protagonist’s name on Wikipedia, just to be completely sure that she wasn’t actually a historical figure. That’s how real pilot Marian Graves felt to me.
Set in the Prohibition era but jumping forward in time occasionally from Graves’ life to the story of a modern-day actress set to play her in a film (a timeline I’ve seen some reviewers dislike but which I felt was effective in contextualising both the way Graves’ life and legacy are reviewed and revised by those after her time, and the places where social norms have seen both growth and stagnation in the decades since her disappearance), this book crosses decades and places as deftly as Graves crosses the sky.
At 600+ pages, this novel may feel like an undertaking to read, but the story flies as you inevitably become engrossed in its characters and its journey.
3. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
It wasn’t until last year that I finally read one of Native American author Louise Erdrich’s novels, the Pulitzer-winning The Night Watchman, and I regretted having waited so long. The Sentence only confirmed that everything Erdrich writes is well worth exploring. Tookie, a Native woman who, after a stint in prison) begins working at a small, independent bookstore in Minneapolis (the one Erdrich, who seems to write herself in as a minor character, owns in real life), is haunted at work by the ghost of a customer. The exploration of life and death, of spirits and names, through the lens of cultural practices and beliefs was beautiful and compelling.
Meanwhile, beyond the walls of the bookshop, something else is beginning to haunt the entire world. Set from November 2019-2020, it may be too soon for some readers to read a novel that so deeply explores both the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, but for those who are ready I think even with the benefit of hindsight it will be difficult for future novels to capture the time and the feeling of living through it as eloquently and thoughtfully as this one does.
On a lighter note, in the same way Hollywood loves movies about movies, I love books about books, and the references sprinkled throughout this novel were wonderful. Every time Tookie passed judgment on a bookstore customer’s choices or recommended a host of titles to suit a particular reader’s preferences was a delight, as was the reading list at the end.
4. The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini
This is a strong debut novel from an exciting voice. I think it will inevitably draw comparisons to one of last year’s shortlisted novels, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House as both are by Caribbean authors who make heavy use of dialect/vernacular in their novels, and both focus on themes of domestic violence and generational trauma. However, whether you’ve read and/or liked that one or not, this novel is well worth a read.
Set in Trinidad, it follows Alethea, a store manager with a traumatic childhood and an unhappy relationship with a washed-up, abusive musician. The other characters aren’t very well developed beyond Alethea, but it doesn’t matter — this feels as much like a character study as it does a story. Alethea is an immediately sympathetic character, and it’s clear that she is as charismatic to others in her life as she is to the reader.
A series of coincidences offer her the possibility of a different, more hopeful path than the one she is currently on, and the novel follows the steps of this journey in a wonderfully crafted plot that draws the reader in to life on the island and what it takes there to feel optimism for Alethea’s future.
5. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki
This is a strange and beautiful novel that cleverly narrates its story through a series of surprising POVs. Benny Goodman, a young man who has recently lost his father to a tragic accident and is in the process of losing his mother to her spiralling grief and mental illness that manifests as hoarding and shopping addiction, begins to hear the voices of inanimate objects. These objects offer up their own perspectives on the story as does, interestingly, the Book itself — yes, the one that you are reading, with whom Benny occasionally converses.
Poetic and philosophical (in addition to being an author, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest), this novel blends magical elements with the starker reality of modern day and covers a wide array of themes in a thoughtful, reflective way. The secondary characters are richly-written and complex.
One bit I found odd was in the character of the Japanese nun who creates a guide for cleaning that becomes a viral hit in the United States — obviously her book is based on Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but I found it slightly peculiar how closely Ozeki mirrored Kondo in this character, even down to writing a social media kerfuffle about whether or not one should give up their books. But this bit of oddness wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm for the story as a whole.
6. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
This is the only novel on the shortlist that didn’t quite work for me. While there were parts of the book that I enjoyed, I ultimately found it a frustrating read. The protagonist is unlikeable — which I certainly have no issue with, but it’s not a novel where we can revel in the main character’s unlikeability. Rather, it’s one where we seem expected to like her despite her grating personality, even as it asks the question of how much of her nature is due to her own self and how much to her undiagnosed-and-later-diagnosed mental illness.
Speaking of her mental illness, it is unnamed and replaced with a “_____” throughout the novel. I found this frustrating in itself as I can’t tell whether the author is attempting to avoid stigmatising real life people who have the unnamed condition, or if she wanted to be able to give her character any traits or symptoms she pleased without being accused of shoddy research or misrepresenting the condition.
The writing itself is solid, sharp and quick-witted, and the pace is fast, but overall I found this book tiring.