Six ‘wonderfully diverse’ novels make the Women’s prize shortlist

Six countries are represented on this year’s Women’s prize for fiction shortlist, with Meg Mason and Elif Shafak among those in the running for the £30,000 prize. The New Zealander and the Turkish-British author are up against two Americans, one American-Canadian and a Trinidadian debut novelist.

The annual prize aims to honour “outstanding, ambitious, original fiction written in English by women from anywhere in the world”, and this year’s chair of judges, Mary Ann Sieghart, was pleased by how “wonderfully diverse” the shortlist has turned out to be. But there were no tick-box exercises in the judging meetings, she stressed: “They were the books we most loved. It really is as simple as that.”

The six novels offer an “escape” from the various global crises we’ve been experiencing recently, Sieghart said – only one shortlisted title, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, mentions the coronavirus pandemic. That’s not to say the books don’t deal with serious topics: the bestselling Sorrow and Bliss is about the impact of mental illness. But at the same time, Mason’s novel is “hilariously funny”, said Sieghart. Reading it was “a great release, given what’s happening in the rest of the world”.

Settings range from Cyprus to Antarctica, while the six shortlisted novels are diverse in narrative style, too. Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees includes sections narrated by a tree, while in The Book of Form and Emptiness, by the writer and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki, every object speaks.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, which weaves together the stories of a fictional female aviator who vanishes in 1950 and the Hollywood actor who plays her in a film more than half a century later, was also shortlisted for the Booker prize last year. But each author is new to the Women’s prize shortlist – and only Shafak has been longlisted before.

Alongside prolific novelists such as Erdrich, whose bookshop mystery The Sentence is her 23rd novel for adults, Trinidadian standup comedian and writer Lisa Allen-Agostini has made the list with her debut novel. The Bread the Devil Knead, written in Trinidadian patois, is about a woman who is being abused by her partner. “You might think [the dialect] would be a little bit offputting,” said Sieghart. “And yet, by about page five, you’re so absorbed in it that you almost stop noticing.”

Sieghart went on to praise Allen-Agostini’s “funny” and “very humane book”, noting how reading internationally “really broadens our horizons”.

“I wouldn’t have known what it was like to live with an abusive partner while running a toy shop in Trinidad if I hadn’t read [The Bread the Devil Knead]. And The Sentence is written from the point of view of a Native American woman; ditto,” she added. “I’ve just learned so much from reading these books.”

The six-strong lineup was whittled down from a longlist of 16 by Sieghart and her fellow judges, the journalist Lorraine Candy, novelist and podcaster Dorothy Koomson, memoirist and critic Anita Sethi and writer and broadcaster Pandora Sykes.

Sieghart admitted it was difficult for the judges to choose their favourites from an “extremely good” longlist, but said the decisions were made “very amicably”, and she highly recommends all the books on the shortlist. “I’d particularly encourage men to read them,” she said, alluding to the fact that that men are far less likely to read books by female authors than women are to read books by male authors.

The award was launched in 1996, after many objected to the 1991 Booker prize shortlist not including any books by women. The winner will be announced on 15 June, joining former recipients including Susanna Clarke, Eimear McBride, Kamila Shamsie and Zadie Smith.

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