Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 – Impressions and Hopes from the Shortlist

Thanks to a worldwide pandemic (perhaps you’ve heard?), this year’s winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, usually announced in June, will be announced on September 8th. For those of you following along at home, the longlist (announced March 10th) featured the following 16 works of fiction by women:

At the end of April, the judges panel announced its shortlist selections, from among which the winner will be chosen next week. The shortlist featured:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, an absolutely brilliant book following Bennett’s breakthrough novel The Mothers, tells the story of twin sisters born and raised in a small, southern black community in which everyone is light-skinned and colorism runs deep. When the sisters leave their town, their lives diverge in radical ways, as one “vanishes” into a new existence as a white woman and the other rejects the colorism in which she was steeped and falls for a dark skinned man. Bennett’s story traverses generations and geography, following these girls from the 1960s to the 1990s, from Deep South to suburban California.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is a glorious fever dream, in which Piranes’s infinite, labyrinthian house is an exciting place seemingly unbound from time and space. Clarke’s story is often wry, frequently eerie, and never boring or familiar. I am hamstrung to describe this unique novel without spoiling it, my memory still tangled in its twists and turns. What I can say is that it is a definite must read.

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller explores the lives of Jeanie and Julius, 51 year old twins whose lives of isolation and poverty have been expertly manipulated by their recently deceased mother. As Jeanie and Julius are forced out into the world that has surrounded them all of their lives, they learn more and more of how their experiences and memories diverge from reality and how much their mother kept them from and from them. The tale is beautifully sad and deeply disturbing. It left me, as the title promised, unsettled.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is a painful expiation, a brutal exploration of one Ghanaian-American family’s powerful struggles with mental illness and addiction. Gifty is struggling to uncover the scientific root to the behaviors and suffering she sees all around her. Forced to care for her suicidal mother, whose mental health has never been the same since Gifty’s older brother overdosed as a teenager, she simultaneously embraces the hard sciences while yearning for the spiritualism of her childhood. Yaa Gyasi’s writing and her ability to see her characters and their worlds so deeply belie her age and demonstrate a polish and wisdom that would be a feat after a lifetime of honing one’s craft.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones is gutting and relentless, a book I hated to love for how it made me feel and what it put its characters through. Set in a seeming paradise in Barbados, this book is more of an exploration of hell, a dark and desperate look at intertwined lives of chaos, violence, poverty, and heartbreak. Well crafted but not at all heartening, How the One-Armed Sister needs a well-balanced mindset for a reader to come away unscathed.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood defies categorization. It is an extreme work of the moment, a novel that embodies the online, shorthand world of social media in its very format. Reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic, with the world literally on fire and people in the streets, felt hyper-timely, occasionally devastatingly real, and often wryly cathartic. I was wholly absorbed by this book, feeling physically unable to move away or do anything but continue to read in horrified glee.

My take: As tends to be the case, the style and stories of the shortlist contenders are widely varied and difficult to compare. I would be happiest to see the creativity of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi or Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This take the prize, though the “of-the-moment” topics of race and mental illness handled so brilliantly by Brit Bennett in The Vanishing Half and by Yaa Gyasi in Transcendent Kingdom also merit reward. We shall see!

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