What you need to know about the brilliant novels shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

Shortlisted books for the Women's Prize
Shortlisted books for the Women's Prize
18:33pm, Wed 28 Apr 2021
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The past 12 months have been tough and heartbreaking, but one small positive thing has come out of the various lockdowns: many of us have rediscovered a love of reading.

According to the Publishers Association, sales of fiction grew by 16% in 2020 – so the freshly announced shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction couldn’t have come at a better time.

The six book-strong shortlist has been picked by a panel of judges chaired by Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, who said: “With this shortlist, we are excited to present a gloriously varied and thematically rich exploration of women’s fiction at its finest. These novels will take the reader from a rural Britain left behind to the underbelly of a community in Barbados; from inside the hectic performance of social media to inside a family beset by addiction and oppression; from a tale of racial hierarchy in America to a mind-expanding tale of altered perceptions.

“Fiction by women defies easy categorisation or stereotyping, and all of these novels grapple with society’s big issues expressed through thrilling storytelling.”

The winner will be announced on July 7, receiving £30,000 and a bronze figurine known as Bessie. Best start making your way through the shortlist now…

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

There’s a reason The Vanishing Half became the must-read book of summer 2020 – it’s electrifying and unputdownable.

Black twins Stella and Desiree escape their Louisiana hometown as teenagers in the 1950s, then separate and live different lives: Stella passes as a white woman and marries without anyone knowing her true identity, and Desiree eventually returns home with her daughter, Jude.

It’s a searing portrayal of race, class and privilege, soon to be adapted for the small screen.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s atmospheric masterpiece comprises a series of journal entries from Piranesi, who lives a near-solitary existence in his marble labyrinth of a home. He tracks the goings-on of the ‘house’, including his biweekly visits from the ‘Other’. It’s an eerie picture of loneliness and isolation, and tension builds when a new presence appears in the house.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Twins are also at the heart of Unsettled Ground: 51-year-old Jeanie and Julius, who still live with their mother, Dot, in a rural old cottage. When Dot suddenly dies, the twins are left adrift – they want to keep life as it is, but as secrets start to come to light, it’s clear things will never be the same again.

It’s a captivating story of love, loss and what happens to those who don’t fit into society’s often strict expectations of normality.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Fans of Yaa Gyasi’s debut Homegoing will be thrilled by Transcendent Kingdom. Neuroscientist Gifty is a Ghanaian first generation immigrant, and while her California life seems stable – even dull – her past is anything but. When her mother comes to stay and can’t do anything but lie in bed, Gifty reflects on her ultra-religious upbringing in Alabama and the opioid addiction that claimed her brother’s life as a teenager.

Gyasi is a master of emotions, showing with raw power the havoc addiction can wreak on so many lives.

How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is one of two debuts to make it onto the shortlist this year (along with No One Is Talking About This). Set on a small island in Barbados, Cherie Jones pulls back the curtain on what life is really like behind the sunny facade of the tourism industry.

She dives into the lives of local women, who are all fighting to stay alive amid violence and poverty. It’s an unflinching look at the more upsetting realities of life in a tropical ‘paradise’.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood’s nameless protagonist is a social media sensation – she’s famous for her viral posts, and calls the internet ‘the portal’. No One Is Talking About This is a tough book to define, covering addiction to social media and the place for real, human relationships.

The writing is bizarre, erratic and fragmentary in a way that leaves you desperate to read on.

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