It’s that time again: Women’s Prize season! The 2021 longlist of 16 books was announced earlier today, and despite the fact that for the first time in a while I’m not aiming to read the *entire* longlist it has, as usual, been a fun reveal. The majority of my reading these days is comprised of women-authored books, so I’m always happy to be given a buzzy list of promising, recent titles.
However, I want to start off with acknowledging (again) that it still feels callous (putting it nicely) of the WP to have ruled prize eligibility for “legal women only,” and going on to check up on authors’ gender status, just another obstacle in the way of non-binary, gender fluid, and transitioning authors being recognized for their work. It is of course the “women’s prize,” but as a prize founded for the purpose of bringing awareness to authors historically overlooked by presitigious lit prizes like the Booker it’s incredibly frustrating to see the WP then turning around and specifically shutting out marginalized groups that may indeed include authors identifying as women and/or writing about lived experience as women. So, to start out here I want to shout out Akwaeke Emezi’s lovely and tragic The Death of Vivek Oji, which I read and loved last year and wanted to see on this list only to discover Emezi had removed themselves from the running in the face of the prize’s gender ruling. Emezi’s Freshwater was a brilliant inclusion for the Women’s Prize in 2019 and The Death of Vivek Oji would’ve been just as well-placed. This is an author on my favorites list that it’s particularly hard for me to see excluded, and they certainly can’t be the only one suddenly finding themselves out of a chance. But we can celebrate seeing the WP’s first transwoman on 2021’s list, at least! Big congrats to Torrey Peters for placing on this year’s longlist!
For an added measure of fun I’m going to introduce the books in order of my initial excitement surrounding each. This is of course arbitrary and has no bearing on the merit of the books. Now let’s dive in!
Read and Loved
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
This was a 5-star read and a 2020 Top 11 Favorite for me, and really the only title I was properly invested in seeing on this longlist. It’s a brilliant character study that looks deeply at depression and addiction while twining science and religion together in fresh and compelling ways. I’m thrilled to see it made the cut and I highly recommend picking this one up!
Already at the Top of my TBR
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
I just know I’m going to love this exploration of race in America’s recent past, featuring two sisters from the Deep South who separate in adulthood, one who comes back to raise her daughter in the Black community of her own childhood, and the other who starts a new life elsewhere, passing as white. I’ve been meaning to read Bennett’s work for a hot minute, and have seen rave reviews from friends. I’m aiming to read it alongside Nella Larsen’s Passing ASAP.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? Is it speculative? I’m not sure, but this book sounds enticingly magical and bizarre and right up my alley. I hear it’s *mysterious* and best not to know too much going in, but that’s exactly what I’m in the mood for at the moment and I love that it’s a break from the ~usual~ sort of WP fare, which shies away from most genre lit. I’m planning for this to be my second-next read, and can hardly wait.
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
A messy love story in which an Irish girl living in Hong Kong becomes romantically entangled in two relationships at once- one with a (male) British banker and the other with a (female) Chinese lawyer. I’ve been looking forward to this one for ages and finally pulled it off my shelf to fit into my March TBR, so this is another title I’m expecting to get to very soon. Hearing that it’s a novelization of Lorde’s Melodrama album was all the further motivation I needed, and now it’s been longlisted besides.
Luster by Raven Leilani
I believe this is one of those millennial disaster women books, here featuring a Black artist who becomes involved with a white man in an open marriage, then befriending his wife and their adopted daughter. I’ve heard mixed things about the plot but am so intrigued to see what Leilani will do with these character dynamics, and I’ve not hit my quota of messy women books yet. This one sounds like a must-read from that category.
Wanted to Read Eventually Anyway
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
This sounds incredible. It looks like a character-driven novel featuring a trans woman who can’t make things work in her relationship when her girlfriend decides to detransition and live as a man, their parting further complicated when a woman pregnant with his child seems to present a perfect opportunity to build a 3-parent family that could hold them all together even when romance is dead- that is, if she wanted to keep the baby in the first place. There’s gotta be some fantastic commentary and character work involved here and I’ve just been waiting for a nudge to buy a copy; this is clearly it.
Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
Here’s a title that’s not quite out yet (UK pub date March 25, US pub date May 18) but sounds appealing- a story of middle-aged twins living in an isolated cottage and beset with mounting troubles following the death of their mother, who’s been keeping secrets. I’ve had Fuller’s debut novel Swimming Lessons on my shelf for years and low-key want to binge her entire catalog of work, so I’m grateful for the extra motivation here driving me to finally dig in.
Summer by Ali Smith
The biggest surprise on the list for me- I was under the impression that Ali Smith was satisfied with a previous win (How to be Both, 2015) and had stopped submitting her work to lit prizes, and so I just hadn’t even considered that her latest release might appear here. That said, I’ve long wanted to read Smith’s post-Brexit seasonal quartet (of which this is book 4), and have the first two on hand. I’d been waiting for this final release in order to read them all together, and while I’m looking forward to doing so and happy to see the finale on this year’s WP list, I’m not entirely sure when exactly I’m going to pick up the series.
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Lockwood’s memoir Preistdaddy caught my attention a few years ago, and even though I’d not gotten around to picking it up yet I’ve been keen to read something from this author. A new novel about the dark traps of social media colliding with real life crisis sounds pretty perfect. I’ve already put in my library hold.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones
A Barbados-set novel in which locals find themselves serving wealthy ex-pats in a supposed paradise with a long legacy of violence. An attempted crime turns everything upside down. This actually sounds like it could be hit or miss for me, but I added it to my TBR a while back when an author whose work I love (I want to say it was Brandon Taylor but cannot remember for sure) made a very positive remark about it on social media. I’m curious enough to give it a shot.
Read and Liked
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
I read this 2020 Booker shortlister last fall, and liked it well enough. It’s a sharp mother-daughter story in which both women are locked into a cycle of loving and harming each other. The biggest hangup for me was simply that I came to it at a bad time, having read more than my share of motherhood books last year and thus finding the themes a bit too tired for me personally even though I thought they were handled well. It was a somewhat disappointing experience, but nonetheless I don’t begrudge this one it’s spot with the WP and loved the Indian setting.
New to Me
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
Totally new to me, this one’s a London-set historical fiction novel following a local feature writer digging into one woman’s claim that her daughter is the product of a virgin birth. While investigating the miracle/fraud, our writer finds herself fitting in closely with the entire family even as her story about them disrupts all their lives. Sounds like there could be some interesting character dynamics here and who doesn’t love a dark writing story? Consider me intrigued.
Consent by Annabel Lyon
I actually did see this one on a list of anticipated 2021 releases and nearly added it to my TBR at that time, but apparently did not and it (sadly) fell off my radar. Pleased to look closer now and discover another novel featuring twins (seems to be a trend on this list), as well as a separate set of siblings; both duos face difficulty that leaves one of each duo caring for her sister, and through tragedy the caregivers also become intertwined. This might have passed me by if not for its spot here, but sounds worth a try.
Because of You by Dawn French
Is this… a switched-at-birth story? The synopsis tells us that two mothers give birth to similar daughters, one of whom is stillborn, and seventeen years later “the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge.” Based on a quick scan of reviews it looks like race may play a role? I’m getting Jodi Picoult vibes and sensing there could be some worthwhile social commentary here but I can’t say I’m drawn to this one off the bat.
Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon
The synopsis calls this book a “a precise and tender story of love in marriage” which… does not seem like my cup of tea, at least at present. ‘Tender’ is a bit of a turn-off description for me, but it sounds like there are also secrets and uncertainty in the marriage, which at least sounds like something I could sink my teeth into. Another book that doesn’t necessarily sound bad but isn’t really grabbing my attention.
The Unsavory Choice
The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig
A mystery/crime novel in which two women meet on a train and agree to murder each other’s husbands, who’ve proven unsatisfactory. But then one of them meets someone who speaks about the other in a way that throws the whole plan into question. This sounds like a run-of-the-mill which-of-these-characters-is-lying sort of mystery, and I’m relieved not to be particularly interested in it because Craig is one of the authors who publicly signed in support of JKR during her transphobic spree last year. That’s not a cause I want to support in any way with a purchase and/or review, so regardless of my interest level I’ll be skipping this one.
Tl;dr/current stats: I’ve read 2 (Transcendent Kingdom, Burnt Sugar), have immediate access to 4 more (Piranesi, Exciting Times, Luster, The Vanishing Half), am planning to purchase 1 immediately (Detransition, Baby), and have just placed 2 library holds (No One is Talking About This, The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House [the only two currently available through my library]). There are 3 books I’m not interested in reading at all right now (The Golden Rule, Because of You, Nothing But Blue Sky).
I’m tentatively planning to pick up as many of the 11 books here that I’m interested in and have not read yet before the winner announcement (July 7th)- not necessarily before the shortlist announcement (April 28th), though I’ll likely rearrange my WP priorities at that point to read as many shortlisters as I can before the winner announcement. I don’t have a more concrete reading plan, and while there’s plenty I’m happily anticipating here I think I’ll have a better experience taking the list at my own pace this year rather than rushing through.
And for final notes on the overall list, I am disappointed to see there aren’t more authors of color present (there are 5, only around 30% of the list, meaning a shocking 70% is white), or more countries represented (11 authors here are British or American, accompanied by 2 Irish authors as well as one author each of Canadian, Ghanian-American, and Bajan/Barbadian nationalities). There are 5 debuts (Detransition, Baby, Exciting Times, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Luster, and No One is Talking About This). – Infinite thanks to Rachel for doing the heavy lifting on digging up these stats!
Tell me below which titles from this year’s longlist you’ve loved or have your eye on, or simply chat initial longlist impressions!
The Literary Elephant