The results are in! In case you missed the announcement, this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist contains the following six books:
- 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
- Weather by Jenny Offill
Congratulations to each of the shortlisted authors!
(Again, I’m missing a copy of Weather, thus the backward-facing stand-in.)
My shortlist reviews (so far) are linked in the titles above. For more of my thoughts on this year’s prize titles, be sure to check out my Women’s Prize 2020 longlist wrap-up, which contains the links to all of my longlist reviews and my impression of the set as a whole. Also included are some shortlist predictions, in which I guessed five of these six titles correctly! That is certainly a record for me, and made for a fun reveal. But let’s talk about the list.
First, what isn’t there? A few of my longlist top choices didn’t make the cut, including Actress, which I was never convinced would stand a chance at the shortlist with this set of judges, who seem to prefer accessibility over literary merit. I thought Fleishman is in Trouble might have stood a slightly better chance, as it is a juicier family drama (which these judges seem to favor, if the longlist is anything to go by), and aside from its bold structure it isn’t a particularly literary read, though it is quite smart. But I wasn’t confident enough to place this one on my predictions list either. I’m more surprised not to see Djinn Patrol, which was lower on my favorites list but a great blend of heavier topics with a lighter narrative tone that I thought would appeal to these judges. It’s also a debut novel from an Indian author amidst quite a few well-established US and UK writers. Similarly, How We Disappeared is a debut from a Singaporean author, and also deftly handles some tough themes- I’m heartbroken this one didn’t advance. I didn’t include it on my prediction list mostly as a way to brace myself for this bad scenario of it not advancing, which sadly is what happened.
Also of note, I think, are the absences of The Dutch House and Red at the Bone, neither of which I particularly wanted to advance but both were highly favored among readers.
As for disappointments that did make the cut, the biggest one for me is Dominicana, which hasn’t sat well with me over time (bumped down to 2 stars), mainly for its lackluster presentation of a questionable romance masquerading as an immigration tale. But it does adhere to a particular motherhood story arc that I saw repeated throughout the longlist, which must have particularly appealed to this year’s judges, and on the heels of the American Dirt debacle earlier this year it does at least make a positive political statement about the need to support immigration stories written by immigrants (or their descendants, in this case). I was also underwhelmed by Weather, though aside from it not resonating with me personally I really have nothing against its presence on the shortlist. Most surprising is the appearance of A Thousand Ships, which I did include in my prediction list as a last-minute wild card but regretted almost immediately because it felt like throwing away a vote; after both longlisted Greek retellings (in the wake of which A Thousand Ships accomplishes very little that’s new) featured on last year’s shortlist, it’s a shock to see such a similar sort of story being honored again so immediately. But while I wasn’t quite at the right place in my reading life to love A Thousand Ships, I do think it’s a perfectly fine novel whose main fault is simply having such a tough act (Miller and Barker) to follow.
But there are some reasons to celebrate as well! With two WP shortlistings and two Booker Prize wins under her belt for the previous books in the same trilogy, it is exciting to see Mantel advance with The Mirror and the Light. It would be a great accomplishment to see her win either the WP or the Booker this year with the trilogy’s final book, and I’d very much like her to have that success. I’m also currently reading this trilogy, so its place on the shortlist is also personally motivating and lets me feel my reading is still “relevant” even though I didn’t quite finish this final longlister before the shortlist announcement. But I’m equally thrilled for Evaristo with Girl, Woman, Other on the shortlist! After the fiasco of her dual win of the Booker Prize last year with Atwood, it would really be a rewarding accomplishment to see her win this one outright. Helped, of course, by the fact that her experimental novel (mostly) about queer black women in London is an absolutely excellent book. Then there’s O’Farrell with Hamnet, which was my favorite reading experience from this year’s longlist despite not being the most technically well-done. O’Farrell is perhaps a bit less obvious a choice for the winner (though still very deserving!) than Mantel or Evaristo this year, which is appealing in itself.
And some of my least favorites are now left behind as well, another relief. I’m most pleased not to see Girl on the shortlist, which I thought was messy both in content and authorship. I’m also glad not to see Nightingale Point advance, which many longlist readers (especially UK-based) seem to be loving, though I strongly disliked mainly for failing to deliver on its stellar premise. While I had some fun reading The Most Fun We Ever Had, I also thought it had nothing to offer beyond entertainment, which is really not what I look for in a literary prize so am happy to see this one missing from the shortlist as well.
I think the only longlisted book I haven’t mentioned yet is Queenie, so might as well! This was probably the most middle-of-the-road book for me on the longlist, and I was fairly indifferent to its possible shortlisting. It’s a book that I love to see getting commercial attention and was happy to discover on this year’s longlist, but it also left me nothing to think about after closing the cover, which isn’t a trait I would look for in “the best” fiction of the year. I suspect it might have been a bit too thematically similar to the more obvious shortlist choice of Girl, Woman, Other, which probably hurt its chance of advancing this year even if it is a great read.
So, my initial overall impression of the shortlist: It could have been worse! It also could have been better, but it would have been hard to pull a really exciting shortlist out of a longlist that felt so underwhelming to begin with, and I think the three I’m happiest to see on the shortlist also have the best chance of winning, so it’s hard to feel too bitter.
Do I recommend reading the shortlist? Sure! While I don’t think this is the most exciting set of six books, there’s only one that I thought was actually subpar, and some readers seem to be having a better time with it than I did. If you’re a long-time prize fan looking for a literary challenge though, this one might not be for you. But there’s no shame in picking up only what appeals either, even if that isn’t the set of books that made it to the shortlist. I recommend at least glancing through the longlist because this is a great way to find books by women that lots of people are reading and talking about! My top recommendations from the longlist would probably vary by reader, but I would most widely recommend Girl Woman Other, How We Disappeared, Hamnet, and Queenie.
Where I stand: The only shortlister I haven’t read yet is The Mirror and the Light, which is the third book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I am currently reading Wolf Hall, the first book in said trilogy. I’ll plan to review all three books together in one go, probably at the end of April or beginning of May. The winner will not be announced until September 9, so there’s plenty of time to finish up (and I do intend to take it a bit easier both with reading and blogging than I have been the last few weeks)! I’ll probably start gathering my concluding thoughts as soon as I finish the Mantel, while my thoughts are fresh, but I’ll wait to post them with an informed winner prediction until closer to the final announcement date, by which time a refresher will probably be helpful.
But never fear! I’m obsessed with Women’s Prize content these days, so more WP-related posts will still be forthcoming. I’ll be posting about an unaffiliated alternate longlist created from this year’s Women’s Prize eligible books, assembled by a great group of bloggers who’ve closely followed this prize. Whether you’re looking for just a few further recommendations or a whole new reading challenge, stay tuned! 🙂 I’ll also be reading as many previous WP winners as I can over the next five months, reviewing as I go, because September is also the closing of the WP “winner of the winners” public vote! The poll is open now if you’re already prepared to cast your vote; if you’re waiting, I’m planning to post at least a partial wrap-up including some thoughts on all of the past winners I’ve managed to read, complete with a ranked list of my favorites.
In the meantime… let me know what you think of this year’s shortlist! Do you have an early guess for 2020’s winner?
The Literary Elephant