The shortlist announcement for the 2020 Women’s Prize is only hours out! In that spirit, here is a full round up of my thoughts on the longlisted books (minus one- I haven’t finished Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light yet), and some guesses about what lies ahead for the shortlist.
(Not pictured: Weather by Jenny Offill, which I read from the library in Feb.)
Though my initial reaction to the longlist was one of cautious excitement, my feeling at the end (or almost) is one of disappointment with this year’s selections. This year’s judges seem to have very different reading taste than I do, and as a result I am left underwhelmed by many of these titles and by the 2020 longlist as a whole. It hasn’t been all bad, of course- this list has encouraged me to pick up a few books I’m happy to have read that I might have missed otherwise! But I’ve not found a single 5-star read among them. This is in contrast with last year’s Women’s Prize longlist which contained FIVE 5-star reads for me, as well as two 4-stars that came very close. In the wake of such excellence, I am less than satisfied with my overall current rating of 3.2 for the 2020 longlist.
One part of the experience that made this longlist stand out for me is the fact that it was the first time that I’ve read most of a longlist outright, picking up the books back to back to back from start to finish. Well, 13 of them- I read two titles prior to seeing the longlist, and still have one left to finish. With life out of whack due to lockdowns and all, I found it very helpful to have a structure to follow over the last month, a concrete list and a (sort of) concrete deadline.
Also because of the lockdowns and *current world state,* I noticed quite a few mentions of fever, quarantine, hand sanitizer, and other “timely” key words in this year’s longlisted books. Almost every book, actually, contained a sentence or two that felt very ironic given our present situation. It’s likely this would have happened with anything I was reading (the same way learning a new word makes it suddenly seem to crop up everywhere), but I was surprised to realize how common it is that authors remark on outbreaks of illness. The most obvious case is of course O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in which the black plague plays a key role, but there were plenty more mentions. (No wonder reading has been such a struggle for so many who are stuck at home these days!)
“I was, for most practical purposes, a person in quarantine; my sickness was without cure and kept eating away at me until I could hardly see anything of myself.” – How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
” ‘Here-‘ she said, holding out a bottle of antibacterial hand gel. She squeezed some into my palm.” … “I pinballed my way down the bus, careful not to touch anything or anyone with my hands, and stepped off.” –Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
” ‘He wears the mask because he thinks it will protect him,’ she says. / ‘From the pestilence?’ / His mother nods. / ‘And will it?’ / Her mother purses her lips, then shakes her head. ‘I don’t think so. Not coming into the house, however, refusing to see or examine the patient, might,’ she mutters.” –Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Less coincidentally, I noticed among this year’s longlist a pervasive theme of motherhood commentary. Every single longlisted book (barring Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, which I can’t speak about yet) includes a pregnancy, a child, a family, or some combination of all three as a central focus of the book. There are absent mothers, abusive stepmothers, sisters who take on parental responsibility, women who aren’t ready for pregnancy but find themselves faced with it anyway. Of course lots of women even outside of literature have children and families, but they are present in these books as main subjects, not incidental details. The common trend seems to be an exploration of what makes a “good” mother; many of this year’s longlisted titles present the reader with a woman who is seen as bad or undesirable as a mother for one reason or another, and then goes on to show that there’s more to the story and to demonstrate that the mother is actually making the best choices available to her given her circumstances. Though this is perhaps ultimately a positive message about women existing as individuals outside of the demands of motherhood, it does paint a rather unflattering image of parenthood in the process, giving us many mothers who seem discontent, doomed from the start, and unrewarded for their efforts.
I’ve never seen a theme quite so consistent across an entire longlist, and while I don’t have an issue with books about motherhood on principle, the concentration of it here bothered me for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not particularly interested in marriage or motherhood for myself at this point of my life, which made it harder for me to find any of this commentary personally relevant. I don’t need to “relate” to every book I read, but out of sixteen of “the best” books in literature published by women over the last year I would have hoped for at least one that would really speak to me. There’s so much more to women’s experiences than motherhood. There’s so much more to literature. It’s disappointing not see more of a variety being highlighted by this prize.
Secondly, I couldn’t help wondering how the strict adhesion to this theme reflected the judges’ approach to selecting this longlist. Were there great books up for the Women’s Prize this year that were passed over for a spot on the list because they didn’t focus on motherhood? Were some of the weaker longlisted titles chosen solely because they highlight motherhood and family dynamics? I have no proof or insider info of course, and I ask out of a sense of curiosity and fun rather than accusation, but this has provided me some interesting food for thought as to the judging process. (Another conspiracy theory for your list, Naty!)
Before I move on from themes and content, I want to touch on some smaller parallels I found between longlisted books. Here are some subjects and/or tactics I saw repeated:
- Boy sleuth investigating tragic mystery: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, How We Disappeared
- Long-term emotional and psychological effects of large scale violence/disaster: Nightingale Point, A Thousand Ships, Girl, How We Disappeared
- Retelling: The Dutch House (Hansel and Gretel), A Thousand Ships (Trojan War)
- Impoverished group neglected by police/government: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Nightingale Point
- Wicked stepmother: The Dutch House, Hamnet
- Criticism of marriage and wealth through unlikable characters: Fleishman is in Trouble, The Most Fun We Ever Had, The Dutch House
- Ignorant men overlooking efforts of spouse/family: The Dutch House, Fleishman is in Trouble
- Challenges of life in London as a black woman: Queenie, Girl Woman Other
- Teen girl removed from family home and raped: Girl, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, A Thousand Ships
- Absent mother: The Dutch House, Nightingale Point, Red at the Bone, Queenie Fleishman is in Trouble, Hamnet
- Family saga: The Most Fun We Ever Had, Red at the Bone, Actress, The Dutch House, How We Disappeared, Dominicana, Girl Woman Other, Hamnet
- Difficult/unusual pregnancy/birth: Fleishman is in Trouble, How We Disappeared, Girl, The Most Fun We Ever Had, Hamnet, Red at the Bone, Queenie, Actress
(Let me know in the comments if you’ve noticed any connections I’m missing! I had a particularly hard time placing A Thousand Ships and Girl Woman Other because of the multitude of perspectives in each; I read GWO several months ago and no longer remember every character’s plot arc. I also haven’t read The Mirror and the Light yet so am not sure what applies.)
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, my ranked list of longlist titles, from most to least favorite. You can follow the links through the titles for more info and my thoughts on each of the books!
- Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 4 stars
- How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars
- Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4 stars
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars
- Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – 3 stars
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 3 stars (down from 4 stars initially)
- Weather by Jenny Offill – 3 stars
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars (down from 3 stars initially)
- Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – 2 stars
(Not included: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I’ll come back and edit it into place when I finish, but my best guess right now is that it’ll end up in the 4 star range, though I’m HOPING for a 5!)
You can see above my top six favorites, and those would be my IDEAL shortlist. But I don’t expect that will happen. My actual shortlist prediction is:
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
- The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
- Weather by Jenny Offill
- Djinn Patrol by Deepa Anappara
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
This was actually very hard to choose! It is always a bit challenging to guess what will appeal most to other people (in this case five other people), especially when factors like diversity, past accolades and present author standing, past WP lists, thematic relevance, and more could all be weighed in the balance as well. I drafted about fifty variations of predictions before I had to just quit so I could finish this post before the announcement, ha. I doubt I’m correct but I didn’t feel any more confident about my other variations and it’s all in fun anyway! Anything could happen. A Thousand Ships is my bold choice reflecting that, I suppose, after TWO Greek retellings made it onto last year’s shortlist.
I’m most sure about the Evaristo and Mantel advancing, and the only book I really don’t want to see advance is Girl. My other 2-star ratings do seem to be getting more favorable reviews from other readers, so I’m trying to prepare myself for one of those featuring. I also have seen that most of this year’s popular hits and commercial successes (ahem, The Dutch House) are not my personal favorites, though it’s always hard to guess how many big names/titles the judges will put forward- not 6, surely. But it seems inevitable SOMETHING I don’t want to see on the shortlist will be there. I just hope some of my 4-star faves will also appear!
Soon we’ll know. I’ll probably post again in about 24 hours with a few early thoughts in reaction to the shortlist, and possibly a winner prediction! (Although maybe not if Mantel does advance, I’d like to finish her trilogy before sharing an opinion about it.)
Last but far from least, I can’t close this wrap-up without a big shout out to my Women’s Prize squad, who’ve been ranting and (less frequently this year) raving about the prize books along with me: Hannah @ I Have Thoughts On Books, Marija @ Inside My Library Mind, Naty @ Naty’s Bookshelf, Rachel @ Pace Amore Libri, Sarah @ Sarah Ames-Foley, and a special nod to Callum @ Callum McLaughlin, the only one of us to actually FINISH the entire list before the shortlist announcement!! Since disappointment with the longlist was pretty mutual amongst us this year, we’ve actually recently assembled an alternative longlist, which I (and others from the group) will be posting about soon as an offering of further recommendations and fun. 🙂
And an extra shout out to even more bloggers who’ve been posting Women’s Prize content that I’ve been loving following along with: Hannah @ Hannah and Her Books, Hannah Celeste @ Books and Bakes, Gilana @ Gil Reads Books, Laura @ Laura Tisdall, and Lou @ Random Book Reviews Web!
If there’s anyone here you’re not already following, definitely check them out! (And if I’ve been commenting on your Women’s Prize content over the last month but I’ve missed you on this list, please let me know so I can correct the oversight!) A big thanks also to everyone who’s read, liked, and/or commented on my Women’s Prize posts even if you’re not reading/posting from the list this year. Having a community to read and chat with about this prize really makes the experience, and I hope anyone who’s been following along with my thoughts has had a positive experience as well!
And now… what do you think will make the shortlist?!
Edit: it’s been half an hour and I already want to change my chaotic A Thousand Ships prediction to a perhaps slightly more likely (and personally preferred) Hamnet… 😅
The Literary Elephant