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The six books that should be on your to-be-read pile

PUBLISHED: 13:00 02 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:36 02 May 2020

The Women's Prize for Fiction judges and the shortlisted titles. Picture: Sam Holden Agency

The Women's Prize for Fiction judges and the shortlisted titles. Picture: Sam Holden Agency

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This year is the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. We take a look at the six books that have made the shortlist and should go straight to the top of your to-be-read pile.

It was back in 1996 that the Women’s Prize for Fiction was launched. A quarter of a century on, it is the country’s most prestigious annual book award celebrating fiction by women. And as chair of this year’s judges, Martha Lane Fox, announced the six-strong shortlist for this year’s prize, she acknowledged that, for many of us, being able to escape into a novel is even more important right now.

“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,” she said.

“Choosing the shortlist was tough – we went slowly and carefully and passions ran high – just as you would want in such a process. But we are all so proud of these books – all readers will find solace if they pick one up.”

Also on the judging panel for the year’s award are Suffolk writer and activist Scarlett Curtis, Melanie Eusebe, co-founder of the Black British Business Awards, author and comedian Viv Groskop and Paula Hawkins, author of the blockbuster thriller The Girl on the Train.

The six books in contention for the award, which will be presented in September, are: 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 and Weather by Jenny Offill

This year’s list features one previously shortlisted author – Hilary Mantel, who has been shortlisted three times, for Beyond Black, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. And Bernardine Evaristo won the Orange Prize Youth Panel award in 2009, for her novel Blonde Roots.

There have been two Norfolk winners of the prize: Rose Tremain for The Road Home in 2008 and Eimear McBride who was living in Norwich in 2014 when she won for A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. Norfolk-based authors who have been longlisted for the prize include Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing, Sarah Perry for The Essex Serpent and Imogen Hermes Gowar for The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. And Suffolk author Esther Freud has been nominated on several occasions.

To mark the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s 25th anniversary, it is running a number of flagship campaigns including #ReadingWomen, a digital book club encouraging readers to take on the challenge of reading each of the previous Women’s Prize winning novels. The challenge hopes to offer the reading nation a source of comfort during lockdown and will culminate in the autumn, when the Winner of Winners will be chosen in a public vote.

And Martha Lane Fox will be joined by Women’s Prize founder director Kate Mosse this Wednesday, May 6, via Zoom, for a deep dive into the six shortlisted books and a behind-the-scenes look at the judging process. Audience members are invited to submit questions to Martha and Kate in advance through the Women’s Prize for Fiction social channels. See the Women’s Prize for Fiction website at womensprizeforfiction.co.uk or @WomensPrize on Twitter or Instagram.

Here are the shortlisted novels to add to your lockdown reading list.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

What’s the story?: Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in 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 and 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 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.

About the author: Angie Cruz is the author of the novels Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee. She is founder and editor in chief of Aster(ix), a literary and arts journal, and is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Girl, Woman, Other 
by Bernardine Evaristo

What’s the story?: From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the 20th century to the teens of the 21st, Girl, Woman, Other follows a cast of 12 characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last 100 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.

About the author: Bernardine Evaristo is the Anglo-Nigerian award-winning author of several books of fiction and verse fiction that explore aspects of the African diaspora and Girl, Woman, Other won the 2019 Booker Prize. Her writing also includes short fiction, reviews, essays, drama and writing for BBC radio. She is professor of creative writing at Brunel University, vice chair of the Royal Society of Literature and was made an MBE in 2009.

A Thousand Ships 
by Natalie Haynes

What’s the story? A Thousand Ships retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective. 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.

About the author: Broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes is the author of The Children of Jocasta and The Amber Fury, which was shortlisted for the Scottish Crime Book of the Year award, and a non-fiction book about Ancient History, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. She has written and presented two series of the BBC Radio 4 show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics and in 2015, she was awarded the Classical Association Prize.

The Mirror and the Light 
by Hilary Mantel

What’s the story?: The Mirror and the Light closes the trilogy Hilary Mantel began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, tracing the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a portrait of predator and prey, of a contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision and of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

About the author: Hilary Mantel is the author of 15 books, including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, the memoir Giving up the Ghost, and the short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, were both awarded the Man Booker Prize.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

What’s the story?: 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.

Hamnet reimagines the life of a boy who has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written.

About the author: Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times number one bestselling memoir I am, I am, I am, and eight novels including Instructions for a Heatwave and This Must Be The Place.

Weather by Jenny Offill

What’s the story?: 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 stabilised 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 polarised world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls.

About the author: Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation was shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award, and was chosen as a book of the year over 20 times, including by the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, FT, Daily Mail, Stylist, Observer and Vogue. She is also the author of the novel Last Things, and four books for children.


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