Reviews – Women’s Fiction Prize 2021

I have been a little quiet on the blog lately (real life getting in the way 🙄), but what I have been determined to persist with is my reading. For the past six weeks, I’ve read only one book a week, but it has been a very enjoyable experience of reading my way through the Women’s Fiction Prize shortlist.

Last year, I gave myself a little reading challenge – of reading the 25 previous winners of this prize. It was a mammoth challenge (half the number of books I plan to read per year!), but the breadth of genres, writing styles and themes I read was absolutely worth it, and I highly recommend checking out at least a few of the books. Here is my round-up and summary post!

This year, I decided to stick to the six books on the shortlist, and I’ve had a great time. Below are links to full reviews (spoiler-free obvi), for each book, but if you’d like summaries and my overall thoughts on this reading challenge, please keep reading!

Favourite book: The Vanishing Half or Piranesi

These books are totally different and yet each of them is like *grips you and doesn’t let you stop reading.* Piranesi is a book unlike any I’ve read, it’s so atmospheric that some of the writing truly took my breath away.

The Vanishing Half, meanwhile, is similarly well-written, but it also just throws you into the middle of intense family drama that’s exacerbated by a very cruel world, so it’s both a personal and social exploration of various issues.

Least favourite book: No One is Talking About This

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into this book, as much as it touches on some important themes.

Most surprising book: Unsettled Ground

The summary for this one doesn’t give you too much, and it’s not the type I’d choose to pick up without a challenge like this, but after reading it my opinion changed completely. It gives you so much. There is an abundance of life and feeling packed within its short pages.

Reviews

The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennet

This book centres on identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella. It begins with their life in the town of Mallard in the south of the US, and the expectations and restrictions they face there. Each sister breaks out into a new life at some point, and the story follows their choices and their consequences.

This story is a true multigenerational epic, spanning the lives of the twins, as well as their parents and children. It’s rare that a story with multiple POVs remains captivating throughout, but that’s definitely the case for this book: I couldn’t put it down, as much as I wanted to savour and sink into the language and meaning behind each character’s thoughts and actions.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

An eerie, somewhat magical world full of statues and ocean tides is populated by only one man, a man who calls himself Piranesi. This story is decidedly ambiguous and written in a very particular style of voice, but this uncertainty and lack of knowledge only contributes to its enjoyment.

The story is so atmospheric. Finishing it really did feel like resurfacing after a while, because of how easily you get caught into the world the author has created here. I really enjoyed all the different characters, the unravelling of the mystery of the protagonist, Piranesi, and even the sinister vibe running beneath every chapter.

Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

This book follows the story of twins, fifty-one year old Jeanie and Julius, trying to come to terms with the sudden upheaval in their lives caused by their mother’s death. Secrets are unravelled and disasters unfold in the twins’ small village, and throughout it all they have to learn both how to live with each other, and without their mother.

The story here is really just everything going wrong at once, but also a more hopeful narrative about constructing your own life on your own terms. A large part of the troubles the twins face are monetary: overdue rent, unpaid debts, having to count change for bread and milk, etc. There is a very clear understanding that if they didn’t have to deal with this, if the twins weren’t living in such poverty, then the emotional fallout of their mother’s death would be easier too. And so this becomes both a critique of society at the same time as it explores family ties.

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi

A fast-paced and relentless story, this follows Gifty’s thoughts of recollections of her life, dipping between past and present, anecdotes and daily life, as it tells the story of her childhood and adulthood. It really interestingly puts the work of her PhD on a parallel line to her life story, essentially explaining one via the other, and includes lots of really interesting dives into neurology.

This book is such an emotional journey. It mainly deals with Gifty dealing with her brother’s death, a catastrophic event we are told about minimally from the very beginning, yet which looms over the rest of the story. However, many other themes are also touched on, such as racism, immigration and addiction, and despite how heavy these topics are, each one is handled so deftly, with a very poetic style of writing, that is was a joy to read.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House – Cherie Jones

There are no punches pulled in this book, which uncovers the widespread misogyny that infiltrates Bajan society, amidst the idyllic tourist beaches. The story primarily follows Lala, beginning from when she is pregnant, in labour, with her child, and what follows as she tries to find her husband. However, it also gives us other perspectives: that of Mira, whose husband is murdered, Wilma, Lala’s grandmother, and a character only known by the name The Queen of Sheba.

The language in this book is so vivid, it’s almost shocking. This is particularly so because there is a lot of violence in this book, which is very difficult to read, and it is portrayed unflinchingly, making it even worse. But this book is about women’s stories – how they create their own lives and stories even as the men around them seek to quash them, and there is something hopeful in that despite everything else.

No One is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

A book that discusses modern-day issues with a deft touch, the structure of this story really feels like a representation of the internet that is its subject matter, and from an author that seems to know what they are talking about, a lot of it does read like a fun, inside-joke about the fallacies – and strengths! – of the internet. The disjointed structure does make for a more difficult read though, as it’s frequently hard to keep track of what’s going on.

The second half of this book delves into ‘real life,’ as a direct contrast to how easily we got lost in the digital world, and how offline events impact us and matter to us much more – perhaps a sign we’re not entirely subsumed in ‘the portal’ just yet.

All six of these books were very readable, even if the content wasn’t always easy to read, and I recommend checking any of them out. As for which book should win the prize? I kind of feel like it should go to Transcendent Kingdom, for making me have feelings on every single page.

Have you read any of these books? Do you plan to? Let me know!

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