Every year, we challenge an intrepid group of readers to join us to shadow read the Women’s Prize shortlist, made up of six titles. Following the announcement of the shortlist, our group sources the books – some using the library, some favouring eBooks or listening to titles on eAudio while others buy their own copies and they get reading! A few days before the winner’s announcement is due, our Shadow Reading Group then meet to share their thoughts about the shortlisted titles.

All this usually happens much earlier in the year, but for 2020, things have been different. The shortlist was announced in April along with the news that the winner’s announcement would be pushed back to September due to Lockdown. After some emails back and forth, the group decided that they would also delay their discussions (and were silently grateful that they would now have extra time to plough through the shortlist – including the nearly 900 page ‘The Mirror and The Light’ by Hilary Mantel).

We knew that this year’s meeting would be different as the group couldn’t all meet face to face in a library space as they had done previously. Many, however, had been using technology to keep in touch with their families and to keep their reading discussions going in other reading groups so we decided that this year’s Shadow Readers discussions would also go virtual.

With the winner’s announcement happening on Wednesday 9th September, on Friday 4th September, the group met virtually to share their thoughts and pick two winners – the ‘Warwickshire Winner’ (the title the group would like to win/would pick if they were on the judging panel) and the ‘One We Think The Judging Panel Will Pick’. Below are our thoughts – in alphabetical order.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Following the personal sacrifices of 15-year-old Ana, Dominicana is a fresh and resonant exploration of female immigrant experience, poised between hardship and hope. Ana Cancion never dreamed of moving to America, the way the girls she grew up with in the Dominican countryside did. But when Juan Ruiz proposes and promises to take her to New York City, she must say yes. It doesn’t matter that he is twice her age, that there is no love between them. Their marriage is an opportunity for her entire close-knit family to eventually immigrate (taken from waterstones.com).

Feelings about this one were mixed – comments ranged from ‘it was an okay book’ to this was the book with the most appealing cover to one group member. Some pondered whether it would do better in America where the book is set, while others thought the topic was depressing. One member, who was in the United States at the time this book was set, felt that it was anachronistic. This made it less authentic for them and impacted their enjoyment. There was praise for the narrative structure and recognition that that it was an important topic and an important “own voices” work.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Welcome to Britain and twelve very different people – mostly women, mostly black – who call it home. Teeming with life and crackling with energy, Girl, Woman, Other follows them across the miles and down the years. With vivid originality, irrepressible wit and sly wisdom, Bernardine Evaristo presents a gloriously new kind of history for this old country: ever-dynamic, ever-expanding and utterly irresistible (taken from thebookerprizes.com).

As this title made last year’s Booker Prize shortlist (the other prize the group shadow read), most had already read it and we had all been pleased that it had jointly won that prize, along with Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’. Some of the group re-visited the book, rereading it for our discussions and thoughts were positive, with some finding they enjoyed the book more on second reading. Several group members commented that they have gone on to read other books by Bernardine Evaristo or sought out her broadcast work to listen to. One group member has also recently reread this in another reading group as part of their response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The group felt that this book had a good mix of readability, experimental writing and literary writing. The lack of capital letters and some of the chapters were harder to get to grips with than others. However, the language used and the writing style, once used to it, made the book very enjoyable. Some chapters are almost poetic, while others have a very narrative structure and the interlinking of the different stories made this an engaging read. Some of the topics were quite harrowing in places – domestic abuse, discrimination and bullying – but the relationships between characters were very dynamic and the ending of the book was unpredictable, making it one we enjoyed revisiting.

We did wonder whether because it shared the Booker Prize, whether that might help or hinder its chances for the Women’s Prize – we shall see on Wednesday!

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective, for fans of Madeline Miller and Pat Barker. This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. . . (taken from womensprizeforfiction.co.uk)

The group commented on the trend in publishing in recent years for books like ‘A Thousand Ships’ – those that take well known myths, legends or history and reimagine them from different perspectives. Examples include last year’s shortlisted ‘The Silence of the Girls‘ by Pat Barker, and ‘Circe‘ and ‘The Song of Achilles‘, both by Madeline Miller. To beat some of these, especially the Pat Barker, would be a tall order for some of our readers and views on ‘A Thousand Ships’ were mixed. For some, it wasn’t a very memorable novel – with so many individuals featuring in the book, it was hard to be drawn in to their characters and none were developed in much detail or depth. Others felt that there were some great moments of wit in the writing and viewed it as magical realism rather than a historical fiction read.

We queried whether you need to know something of the background or history of novels such as these – for this one, do you need to know a lot about Greek history, myth, their Gods and Goddesses? Most felt that while it can be useful to know, it’s not necessary and this book in particular could be read and enjoyed without knowing a lot of background. If you haven’t read it, you should!

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves (from goodreads.com)

Readers of this book are warned – you’ll need strong arms! It’s a big book that may take you a while to read but according to one group member, the effort is worth it – they “loved it and didn’t want it to end”. As the third in a trilogy (although this one can be read as standalone as Mantel does a great job of summarising the ‘story so far’), the group felt this lived up to the hype and the previous books in the series. It was felt that Mantel has risen the bar for historical fiction – the depth of her research and detail will influence future writers and the group felt this was definitely a good thing.

Although the ending is known (that’s recorded history for you!), there was still tension throughout the book, created through the writing and the level of detail transported our readers into the world of Cromwell and the Tudor Court.

One thing we did wonder about was whether this would win – Mantel has won the Prize previously and this title is also longlisted for the Booker Prize (which she has also won for her previous novels). We also wondered whether the judges might weigh up whether to give Mantel another victory or whether they might give another author a win instead? There were mixed feelings so despite it coming out on top (spoiler alert) as the title we thought the judges would pick as their winner, we will wait and see!

Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell

Hamnet is a novel inspired by the son of a famous playwright. It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves. Above all, it is a tender and unforgettable reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, but whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays ever written (from hachette.co.uk)

We should probably come clean with this one and admit to a smidgen of bias as this novel is set in Warwickshire and the group loved it for many reasons, including the fact that because the places mentioned in it are very well known to us, this helped bring the book to life. Many of us have walked the streets of Stratford mentioned by O’Farrell and know some of the history of Shakespeare and his family. Having said all that, Hamnet has received very positive reviews from all over and is both a heartbreaking novel and one that the group really enjoyed, despite its sombre topic.

The characters of the novel are bought to life in a lot of detail, though they are based on figures from history about which little is known. For some readers in our group, this sparked an interest in finding out more, especially about Agnes (or Anne) Hathaway and Germaine Greer’s book ‘Shakespeare’s Wife’ was mentioned as a starting point. For other readers, though it was obvious that an enormous amount of research has gone into the novel, the fact that so little is known made this more of a historical fantasy – there’s a lot of supposition about Agnes and the type of woman who Shakespeare might have married and this jarred a little with some readers. We also wondered whether readers who maybe don’t know Stratford that well would not be as enthralled by the book as we were.

The group felt there were many powerful topics covered throughout ‘Hamnet’ from the relationships between family members and how grief can be all encompassing and destructive to herbalism and how those who practised it during these times were viewed. Some sections of the book, such as the details about how plague came to Stratford were both praised and criticised by our readers and we also discussed the timing of the book being published during a pandemic. For some, reading this during Lockdown was a little too close to home! Overall, for most of our Shadow Readers, it was the favourite or second favourite read.

Weather by Jenny Offill

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practise her other calling: as an unofficial shrink. For years, she has supported her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right wingers worried about the decline of western civilization (from allenandunwin.com)

Last alphabetically and unfortunately, this one was also last in most of the group’s ratings. Though it wasn’t a long read, it didn’t make too much of an impact on some readers. A few commented that although they have read it, they didn’t remember much about it. Written in an almost stream of consciousness format, for some, this made it an unsatisfactory read. Others, however, felt that the book was incredibly topical and how it was written helped its narrative. Covering topics such as climate change, threats to democracy and the insecurities that many people feel in today’s world, there is a growing sense of doom and the level of threat builds throughout the novel, according to one of our readers. For this reason, although not popular, there was some thought that this might be a potential winner as it is so very current.

Other points we considered

Throughout discussions, the group kept returning to a few topics that popped up repeatedly. The first was readability and whether a book that is a challenge to get through makes a good winner. Most felt that an accessible novel would be a worthy winner and would mean that it also had a wide appeal to readers. However, as all readers are different, we did wonder whether this should be or is considered by book prize judges. A title previously read by the group, ‘Ducks, Newburyport‘ by Lucy Ellman was mentioned as example of a book that would likely be a challenge, and quite possibly not very accessible, but that has done very well, being shortlisted for literary prizes (including the Booker) and winning the Goldsmiths Prize in 2019.

A second topic that arose was around the timing of reading the shortlist and when members of the group had read the books. For this shadow reading period, we’ve had a lot longer than normal – from shortlist announcement to a group meeting is usually about 6 weeks. This time, the group had had months to get through the six shortlisted books. For some, this time meant that they could read then revisit the books, while others felt it made them a little over confident – there seemed to be plenty of time to get the shortlist read, though that time soon evaporated and there was a rush on getting through the books. Some felt that the extra time had given them plenty of pondering time – they could reflect on the books and their thoughts on each one. Others remarked that it was too long a time – though the books were read, the longer timescales meant that their contents had been forgotten so a refresher was needed before our discussion.

The results

When we had finished sharing our thoughts, the group voted on two winners – the Warwickshire Winner (the one that we would pick if we were the judging panel) and the One We Think The Judges Will Pick.

The Warwickshire Shadow Readers Winner: ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell. (This is perhaps unsurprising and we do acknowledge that there may be some bias in this decision but the group genuinely thought that this was an engaging and accessible novel that should win).

The One We Think The Judges Will Pick: ‘The Mirror and The Light’ by Hilary Mantel (though there was some thought that ‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill might also attract the judges’ eye!)

The announcement for the Women’s Prize is announced on Wednesday 9th September. This year’s ceremony is virtual.

Do you agree with our deliberations? Let us know your thoughts on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist in the comments and we’ll see you again later in the year for the group’s thoughts on the Booker Prize.

If you would like to know more about the Shadow Readers Groups, please email libraryevents@warwickshire.gov.uk