Women’s Prize 2020 shortlist – initial impressions from Warwickshire readers
Each year, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced, a group of readers from across Warwickshire meets to discuss their initial impressions and identify who they think will be the front runners. In this initial meeting, we discuss any of the books that we’ve read already since the announcement of the long list and try to pick which we think might catch the judge’s eye.
The group then meets a few weeks later having read as many of the shortlisted titles as they can get their hands on (unfortunately, we can’t supply reading groups sets of all the titles so members of the group either borrow what titles they can from the library individually or source their own copies). We discuss our thoughts about each book – both positive and negative. We also pick two winners – one that the group think SHOULD win and, if different, the one they think WILL win. Some years, this has been the same book, in others, two different.
This year, due to social distancing, we can’t meet together so we came up with a couple of solutions – we would go online and hold an #EveningLibraryChat for those on Twitter and for those who aren’t, we invited them to email their thoughts so we could compile them into this post and keep the book discussions going.
There was a mixed response to the shortlist when it was announced, as there often is during group discussions. There were several books on the long list that didn’t make it to the shortlist that some felt deserved to be there. Edna O’Brien’s ‘Girl’, Anne Enright’s ‘Actress’ and Ann Patchett’s ‘The Dutch House’ were titles that didn’t make the shortlist though had intrigued our group. Those who have read these titles recommended giving them a second look, despite their absence from the shortlist, emphasising just how difficult the judging decisions must be for the panel when there is such a strong long list.
Here then, for your reading pleasure, are the initial impressions of our readers from both Twitter and email of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, in alphabetical order of the author’s surname.
If you want to find out more about each title, visit the Women’s Prize for Fiction website.
Angie Cruz – Domininica
Several readers expressed the view that this one hadn’t been on their radar until the shortlist was announced. Some felt the content might be depressing? Others felt the book was appealing as it takes an interesting spin on the story and several members were impressed with the cover –a very bright and modern design that caught the eye. As in previous years, there’s an element of judging each book by its cover – does it attract the eye, make us want to read it and although that’s not the only thing we base our discussions on, the importance of this cover and its appeal was recognised.
Bernardine Evaristo – Girl, Woman, Other
This was one that a number of the group had already read, bearing in mind it was the joint winner of last year’s Booker Prize which the group also met to discuss (no one during last year’s discussions predicted two winners but ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ did come near the top of our picks). Some readers felt this book had left a lasting impression, with vivid characters who had stayed with them long after the last page was closed. They found it an immersive read despite the often difficult subject matter. For others, it hadn’t left such a positive impression – the writing wasn’t as ‘sparky’ as they’d hoped.
As with the Cruz novel, there were also points made about the cover design – the publishers have significantly changed the cover from hardback to paperback. Several commented about the change and though everyone agreed that both designs were appealing, it was felt the paperback cover was striking and likely to attract the reader – a reminder again that, even though we shouldn’t, we do often judge a book by its cover.
Natalie Haynes – A Thousand Ships
As in previous shortlists, novels that reimagine classical mythology are included – well known stories told from the female perspective that have historically been overlooked. ‘A Thousand Ships’ gives the Trojan War just such a treatment. Members of the group felt that the addition of this title on the shortlist makes easy to see what this prize is about.
Group members had a variety of opinions on this novel – those who have already read it and who listen to Haynes’ work on podcasts and stand up felt that a lot of ground was covered, though possibly too much. Some of the characters in the novel had strong, individual voices, though not all, in the words of one group member, which let the novel down somewhat. Others were relishing re-reading with an eye on its possible prize-winning status. There were comparisons made to last year’s ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker which likewise retold mythology from the female perspective, with some members of the group pondering if both were too similar. Of the members of the group who haven’t read it, several said they were looking forward to it.
Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light
For most members of the group, it was little surprise that ‘The Mirror & The Light’ was shortlisted – many had read the other two parts of the Trilogy (‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’) and had been looking forward to the publication of this behemoth of a book. Some felt that there would have been outrage if it hadn’t made the shortlist and its inclusion was inevitable!
A number of our readers have already made their way through the 900-odd page book with opinions ranging from “an amazing achievement to sustain the narrative in the way that she did, with less obviously dramatic material to work with than she had in the previous two books … I was completely seduced by it” to “Although I’m struggling with this one more than the other two, her writing is wonderfully poetic, and just flows effortlessly. She makes each word and sentence count and brings characters and place so vivid and alive”. Some, having finished, have admitted they prefer other titles in the Trilogy, though there was overall praise for a satisfying conclusion.
‘The Mirror & The Light’ also received the most comments during our #EveningTwitterChat. People who posted were similarly pleased it had made the shortlist and had been reading it avidly, despite its size. One commented that they felt “bereft” when they got to the end, while another felt it was a “brilliant conclusion” to the trilogy. There were some comments about it being a challenge to read though ultimately worth it when reaching the end.
Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet
We may be a little biased about ‘Hamnet’ here in Warwickshire as the novel is set in Stratford and focuses on the children of William Shakespeare. Having said that, this has been getting a tremendous amount of praise online and is one of the front runners for favourite amongst the group. One member felt that “Maggie O’Farrell just completely re-imagines the world, so vividly, so intensely, so beautifully, that you have to believe that she has hit on the truth! I wept a lot, but in a good way, and really didn’t want it to end.” Several who haven’t yet read ‘Hamnet’ are looking forward to reading it so there’s a lot riding on the novel. Maggie O’Farrell is an author many have enjoyed previously so the anticipation is high.
It’s another one with an eye-catching cover also!
Jenny Offill – Weather
‘Weather’ was seen by some as the counterbalance to ‘The Mirror & The Light’ – it’s a shorter novel and, while many in the group haven’t yet read it, most were looking forward to it. There was a little trepidation that the content might also be a tad depressing, though many felt it sounded interesting. Some who have read Offill before commented on her quirky writing style, while others felt the concept for the novel was topical and current.
The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 9 September so there’s plenty of time to get reading. If you’ve already read any of the titles, let us know your thoughts in the comments or if any intrigue you, let us know what it is that has sparked your attention.
Equally, which cover looks most appealing? Which do you think will win and which do you want to win?
Hopefully, our shadow reading group will be able to meet in some form closer to the announcement date to make our decisions and if we do, we’ll be sure to update you in a new blog post. If you like to read about previous discussions, you can find last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction post here and thoughts about The Booker Prize here.
If you’d like to be involved with future shadow reading projects, please do get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org.