Women’s Prize Longlist 2020 Thoughts & Other Prize Reading Projects

Next Wednesday the 22nd, the Women’s Prize shortlist will be revealed. However, the winner announcement has been delayed until September 9th, so we all get extra time to read the finalists (which is handy since the 900-page Hilary Mantel is a shoo-in). I happen to have gotten through half of the longlist so far. There were some books I cared for more than others. Of the remainder, I plan to pick up a few more once my library reopens.

Here’s how I’ve fared this year, in categories from best to worst, with excerpts and links to any I’ve reviewed in full:

 

Loved! (5)

  • Dominicana by Angie Cruz: In 1965, 15-year-old Ana Canción, married off to an older man, leaves the Dominican Republic for New York City. With not a word of English, she feels trapped in her apartment and in this abusive relationship. Yet Ana is such a plucky and confiding narrator that you’re drawn into her world and cheer for her as she figures out what she wants from her life. This compassionate novel is proof that not all the immigration stories have been told yet.

 

  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: A terrific linked short story collection about 12 black women in twentieth-century and contemporary Britain balancing external and internal expectations and different interpretations of feminism to build lives of their own. The prose is more like poetry: a wry, radical stream of consciousness. A warm, spirited book, it never turns strident. It’s timely and elegantly constructed – and, it goes without saying, a worthy Booker Prize winner. To win the Women’s Prize too would be unprecedented, I think? But no surprise.

 

  • Weather by Jenny Offill: Could there be a more perfect book for 2020? It’s a blunt, unromanticized but wickedly funny novel about how eco-anxiety permeates everyday life. Set either side of Trump’s election, it amplifies many voices prophesying doom, from environmentalists to Bible-thumpers. Lizzie’s sardonic narration is an ideal way of capturing relatable feelings of anger and helplessness. Don’t expect to come away with your worries soothed, though there is some comfort to be found in the feeling that we’re all in this together.

 

  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: A memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. When their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel: cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeek cigarette empire. Patchett always captures the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head.

 

  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: Like a family saga in miniature, this short novel stretches backward from Melody’s 16th birthday party, held in Brooklyn in 2001, to explore previous generations of the African American experience. Chapters alternate between first- and third-person narration, highlighting the perspectives of all the major family members. I raced through to see who would follow in family footsteps, or not. The title is apt: the book is sometimes raw and sometimes tender. It’s an emotionally engaging story of loss and memory.

 

Currently skimming (1)

  • The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: I’ve stalled around page 200. I’ll be totally engrossed for a few pages of exposition and Cromwell one-liners, but then everything gets talky or plotty and I skim for 20‒30 pages and put it down. My constant moving between 10‒20 books and the sudden loss of a deadline have not served me well: I feel overwhelmed by the level of detail and the cast of characters, and haven’t built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch.

 

Did not particularly enjoy (3)

  • Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst.
  • Actress by Anne Enright: A slow-burning backstory of trauma and mental illness. I found I wasn’t warming to the voice or main characters and mostly skimmed this.
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: In comparison with other historical fiction, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief.

 

Attempted but couldn’t get through (1)

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – I’m wary of child narrators anyway, and the voice didn’t grab me within the first few pages.

 

Still plan to read (3)

  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

 

Not interested (3)

  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie: Sounds subpar.
  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Say no to updated Greek classics.
  • Girl by Edna O’Brien: I don’t care for O’Brien’s writing. Though this was well received by the critics, it’s not finding much love among my trusted bloggers. (Plus there’s the cultural appropriation issue.)

 

My ideal shortlist

(A wishlist based on my reading and what I want to read)

 

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Weather by Jenny Offill

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

 

vs.

 

My predicted shortlist

 

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Actress by Anne Enright

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Girl by Edna O’Brien OR Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

 

Callum, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!


In this 25th anniversary year of the Women’s Prize, readers are also being encouraged to catch up on previous winners.

  • I’ve read 13 so far (and am currently rereading On Beauty by Zadie Smith).
  • I already had Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville on my shelves, plus The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on my Nook.
  • I recently found a copy of A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne at the free bookshop where I volunteer.
  • On my current library stack are When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant, Property by Valerie Martin and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.

I can’t promise to be a completist about this project because the prospect of reading A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing and The Glorious Heresies fills me with dread, but we’ll see…

 

Other Prize Reading Projects

I’d been trying to make my way through some previous Wellcome Book Prize winners and nominees, but have been scuppered by my library’s closure. At the moment I have Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2017 longlist; passed on from my father-in-law) and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes (2016 shortlist; from the library) on my pile to read or, more likely, skim.

I also had the idea to read all the Bellwether Prize winners because I loved The Leavers so much. (Known in full as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, it is a biennial award given by PEN America and Barbara Kingsolver, who created and funds the prize, “to a U.S. citizen for a previously unpublished work of fiction that address issues of social justice.”) This project did not start particularly well as I DNFed Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. However, I own copies of Mudbound by Hillary Jordan and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow and hope I’ll have better luck with them.

 

What prize lists or other reading projects are keeping you busy?

17 responses

  1. Really interesting thoughts. As I’ve said, I think Hamnet, Girl, Woman, Other, and The Mirror and the Light are absolute shoo-ins for the shortlist. I didn’t particularly enjoy Dominicana but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it there as well. On the other hand, I’d love to see How We Disappeared make it through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised by how white-lady-heavy my predictions list ended up being; that may be why I also stuck Queenie on there, thinking of it as a lighter choice in the same vein as My Sister the Serial Killer.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. I don’t know what the judges will do but my preferred shortlist features four women of colour and only two white women.

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    2. My wish list is a respectable (I hope!) half and half. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Woodson on the shortlist, but I think what it’s doing is a little too similar to the Evaristo and not quite as good. And the judges might well decide to make the one that I truly didn’t like, Fleishman, a finalist.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hamnet is next on my TBR pile, Queenie and the Evaristo still to be read too. I don’t know why, but I prefer all the smaller quirky prizes to the Women’s prize.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t always get on well with the winners; as with the Booker, I’m more likely to pull out some gems from the shortlist or longlist. Sometimes both have gone too far towards the commercial end, which I think was part of the reason behind the Folio Prize.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read quite a number of lukewarm responses to Hamnet and Actress, now. So disappointing, paticularly the Enright, although I see you expect it to be on the shortlist. I’d certainly be pleased to see The Dutch House there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought Actress was accomplished, but I struggled to warm to it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it on the shortlist, along with a repeat appearance for Patchett.

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  4. Brilliant round-up post. I adored Girl, Woman, Other so would be quite excited to see it win another award. Queenie and Red at the Bone are on my TBR lists for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I think Girl, Woman, Other is an ideal book for this prize, but I don’t know if the fact that it has already won a major award would be considered a strike against it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, maybe! Looking forward to seeing who wins

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  5. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who felt the same way about Hamnet. I’m planning on reading Red to the Bone next, but would love to see Girl, Woman, Other and The Dutch House make the shortlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Red at the Bone is well worth reading. It’s a very quick read as well.

      I’d be shocked if Evaristo doesn’t make the shortlist. I’m less sure about Patchett, as she’s been nominated several times before (and won once).

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  6. I’m just reading as normal although I had my bright idea to invite people to read along with me and then instead of reading My Antonia and Hidden Figures this week I got sucked into Queenie which I could not put down (and am about to review). Trying to read something for the 1920 Club this weekend …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m squeezing in a couple of 1920 Club reviews this weekend as well. Glad you found Queenie engaging — once my library reopens that will be first on my list to borrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] ongoing (more here): Projects to read as many Bellwether Prize, Wellcome Book Prize and Women’s Prize winners as […]

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  8. […] and publicity, but I think that may have backfired – I was quite excited early on (see my thoughts on the longlist; my wish list correctly predicted four of the six on the shortlist), but long ago wearied of […]

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