The UK’s Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the preceding year.
Chair of judges and bestselling writer Mary Ann Sieghart said last year, “We were blessed with an extraordinarily high quality of submissions this year, which made whittling down the longlist from 16 to six particularly difficult. But the shortlist contains a wonderfully diverse range of stories, subjects, settings and authors, from the experience of a Native American woman in a haunted bookshop to an early female aviator in the Antarctic.
“One novel is narrated by a tree, and another by the book. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, others tearful, and sometimes the two are combined in the same book. We, judges, have loved reading them all, and we commend them to you as the best fiction written by women and published in the past year.”
Here are some books that made the shortlist last year.
The Island of Missing
It is 1974 on the island of Cyprus. Two teenagers from opposite sides of a divided land meet at a tavern in the city they call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek and Christian, and Defne, who is Turkish and Muslim, can meet, in secret, hidden beneath the blackened beams from which hang garlands of garlic, chilli peppers and wild herbs. This is where one can find the best food in town, the best music, and the best wine. But there is something else to the place: it makes one forget, even if for just a few hours, the world outside and its immoderate sorrows.
In the centre of the tavern, growing through a cavity in the roof is a fig tree. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings, their silent, surreptitious departures; and the tree will be there when the war breaks out when the capital is reduced to rubble when the teenagers vanish and break apart.
Decades later in north London, 16-year-old Ada Kazantzakis has never visited the island where her parents were born. Desperate for answers, she seeks to untangle years of secrets, separation and silence. The only connection she has to the land of her ancestors is a Ficus Carica growing in the back garden of their home.
Sorrow and Bliss
Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.
So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?
Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.
Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, Bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.
Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading ‘with murderous attention,’ must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.
The Sentence begins on All Souls’ Day 2019 and ends on All Souls’ Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.