On Wednesday 15th June, the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize For Fiction will be announced. The Prize, an annual book award celebrating & honouring fiction written by women, has seen authors such as Andrea Levy, Maggie O’Farrell and Madeline Miller honoured over its 26-year history. You can read more about the history of the Women’s Prize here

As in previous years, a group of Warwickshire readers have been shadow reading the Prize. Our group read all six shortlisted titles and meet to share their thoughts, pick their winner and speculate on who the judges will pick just before the winner is officially announced.  

Below are their thoughts on this year’s shortlisted titles and their thoughts on who the winner might be

The Bread The Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini 

The group take each book alphabetically by the author’s surname, so this year started with a lively discussion about The Bread The Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini. While they all agreed it was a difficult and in places hard going book to read – covering themes of abuse and domestic violence – there were some members who found it engaging and enjoyed reading it.  

As one of the shorter books on the shortlist, several commented that they read it quite quickly and that it reminded them of a previously shortlisted book, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

The book is written from the perspective of Alethea Lopez and is set in Port of Spain in Trinidad. The author uses Creole dialect which, once everyone had become familiar with how the language worked, made the book very immersive. It was also one the group felt would be well adapted to the stage or screen and for some, hearing the thoughts of others made them re-evaluate their own feelings about the book.  

There was also agreement that the cover of this book was very eye catching.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

A book set in a bookshop always goes down well amongst readers and The Sentence was no exception. Add to that some great characters vividly portrayed, universal themes such as how people deal with death and grief and some timely storylines, and you have what the group felt could be a possible winner. 

The Sentence follows the story of a small independent bookshop in Minneapolis over a period of time from November 2019 to November 2020. As well as a ghost haunting the shop, the story also follows its lead character Tookie as she and her family navigate events from political division and the Covid 19 Pandemic to the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd. These storylines made the book incredibly current and relevant and even though they are big topics, nothing was handled too heavily. 

Indigenous cultures are central to the book, as are themes of cultural appropriation and consideration of racism both in the past and present in America. Erdrich herself is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Native American voice is one that few of the group had read before or knew a great deal about. Having read The Sentence, some group members are going to read other books by Louise Erdrich. 

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

This book also provoked a lively discussion, though not all of it positive. It has already been a very popular book and one group member described it as a “rollercoaster read” but, having read it quite a while ago, others felt it wasn’t all that memorable and, looking back, enjoyable. 

The book follows the story of Martha, a nearly 40-year-old woman whose husband has left and who has returned to live with her parents. Living with an unnamed mental health condition, the book follows Martha and the lives of her family.  

That her diagnosis is never named and, in an author’s note at the back of the book, readers learn that it is a fictional illness, did not go down well with the group. Some felt this did not make for a realistic portrayal of mental health and, while there were some redeeming features – some of the writing was good in places and the alphabet story game was well received – this wasn’t enough to make the group declare it a winner. 

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki 

Another book featuring books and libraries as central characters/storylines, though not quite as well received as The Sentence was. It’s a long book (over 500 pages in paperback) and took some members quite a while to get through. It’s also a very sad book, though the portrayal of grief/bereavement and how it can manifest in different ways in different people was very poignant and authentic. 

There was a lot of empathy created for the main characters, Benny and Annabelle. Readers cared about them and wanted their lives to get better – for all the sad things to stop happening and for them to get a happy ending. 

Some elements of the story – talking objects and books – didn’t go down too well with some, though others enjoyed this aspect. Some chapters are narrated by The Book, while others are sections of a book called Tidy Magic (a ‘fictional’ book though obviously based on the Spark Joy books). These different styles helped move the book along.  

It was also another book that featured some timely topics such as mental health and consumerism but although there was a good sense of time and place created, this was another that the Shadow Readers didn’t think would be a winner. 

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is an author many of the group have read before, although with mixed feeling and this book likewise created debate. One member felt that this was a disappointing read, too laboured and predictable, while for others, this was their favourite from the shortlist, with moments that made them stop reading to re-read a sentence and ponder the story and the issues raised. 

The Island of Missing Trees follows two timelines, one set in 1970s Cyprus and the other following Ada Kazantzaki on her journey as she tries to find her place in the world. Interweaved with this are chapters narrated by a fig tree, once rooted in Cyprus but bought to England by Ada’s father, Kostas. 

Several of the group commented that they felt they learnt a lot from this book – about the history of Cyprus that they hadn’t been aware of, about nature and its interconnectedness and, without giving the ending away, one was bought to tears by the final chapters. It was another book with a great cover (although of course, the group try to avoid judging a book by its cover alone) and one it was felt would last and be read in years to come.  

The Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead 

This historical fiction novel was described as a page turner, was loved by one member for its “scope and ambition” and judged to be a great uplifting summer read-type book. Whether it will win was another question. While group members mostly enjoyed the book – a “solid example of historical fiction” according to one member – they didn’t feel it had enough to be a winner. 

Another book that follows two parallel storylines, The Great Circle features Marian Graves, a 1950s pilot challenging boundaries to become the first to fly the ‘great circle’ around the globe and Hadley Baxter, a Hollywood actor playing Marian on camera half a century later. We’re shown snippets of both Marian and Hadley’s lives, loves and careers as they challenge society’s assumptions about women and their place. 

The group certainly felt this one will do well commercially – it has an appealing premise and as mentioned, would make a great summer read. It has a wide appeal and certainly has done well as it was also shortlisted for The Booker Prize last year. They didn’t, however, think it will win this year’s Women’s Prize. 

So who will win? 

When our Shadow Readers group meet, they always pick two winners – the one that gets the most votes from members (their favourite) and the one they think the judges will pick. Sometimes the titles are the same, sometimes they differ. 

This year’s favourite 

There is a very scientific voting system in the Shadow Readers meetings – members award each shortlisted title points between one and six – six points for the favourite title, one for the least – and the book with the most points is the Warwickshire winner.  

At this session, after a Eurovision-esque points awarding, here are the results of the Warwickshire Shadow Readers jury: 

1st place (by one point) – The Island of Missing Trees 

2nd place – The Sentence 

3rd place – The Great Circle 

4th place – The Book of Form and Emptiness 

5th place – The Bread The Devil Knead 

6th place – Sorrow and Bliss 

Who our Shadow Readers think the judges will pick

It was very close between the favourites and although the group would love The Island of Missing Trees to win, they felt that, ultimately, The Sentence is the title the judges are most likely to pick. It’s an incredibly relevant and current book and group members wondered if, with all her other awards, whether this year will be Louise Erdrich’s year to bring her voice to the Women’s Prize and win.

The winner will be revealed Wednesday 15th June – follow @WomensPrize on Twitter to keep up to date with the announcement or find out more on the Women’s Prize For Fiction website.