The Readings guide to the Women’s Prize 2021 shortlist, with Chris Gordon

With the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner’s announcement delayed until September, we now have even more time to read our way through the outstanding titles on this year’s shortlist. Not sure where to start? Our programming and events manager Chris Gordon has read her way through the list and is here to help.

There are so many reasons to support the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Firstly, reading any novel on the longlist or shortlist (and telling others about it) is a simple way to raise the profile of women’s narratives. Secondly, by supporting the Women’s Prize you are also supporting Australia’s own Stella Prize. Back in the foundation days of the Stella Prize, we turned to the Women’s Prize as inspiration but also for intellectual support. The two prizes are linked: both were started by women who realised female authors were not equally represented within literary prizes and reviews. And if those reasons aren’t enough, then read from the Women’s Prize shortlist because the novels are excellent.

Excitingly this year’s shortlist is made up of authors who have never been nominated for the award before. There are shared themes among the titles: stories of mothers, family betrayals and of heart-wrenching isolation. These themes take us out of our comfort zones and into new territories where the long-term consequences of neglect are highlighted and the reality of women’s lives are illustrated with anguish, brittle horror and a great deal of empathy.

Reading this list of novels allowed me to experience perspectives I had not considered before, and I was invited into rich worlds filled with sacrifices, hope and above all, with love. The sum, surely, of so many women’s histories.


Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller’s fourth novel Unsettled Ground is about middle-aged twins who have grown up in isolation in rural Wiltshire with their mother. When the mother dies, the twins are left desperate to preserve their own small refuge. This touching novel is a portrait of displaced and isolated lives. Fuller’s emotional power is her ability to turn the story from tragedy to solvency.

Read this book if…

★ You loved Educated by Tara Westover.
★ You want to feel the wind on your back, the grey clouds above and your horizon stretching out in front of you. Read it because you know you have options, and not everyone is so fortunate.


Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom follows a family of forgotten Ghanaian immigrants living in the American south. The story centres on Gifty who grieves loss on many levels, but nevertheless turns her life into a successful story. Years later, Gifty learns that she cannot escape generational trauma. Tracing her family’s story through continents and generations, Gifty’s story show us a modern America that is filled with racism and bigotry.

Read this book if…

★ You loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.
★ You miss the feeling of wind tunnels created by skyscrapers and the bustle of a subway at rush hour. Read it to see how a fulfilling education can change lives.


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Speaking of racism and generational distress, Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, is about light-skinned African-American identical twin sisters, one of whom passes for white. Though they’re separated by lies and milage, the destinies of the twins remain linked. Bennett’s story serves as a scathing historical portrait of America imbued with the power of a family multigenerational saga.

Read this book if…

★ You loved Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.
★ You’re not the type to sit on a porch lamenting your life choices. Read it because you understand that sometimes falsehoods grow if people stay silent.


Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Lovers of Susanna Clarke’s bestselling fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell will be delighted with the shortlisting of her second novel, Piranesi, published 16 years after her first. This is a highly unusual and original novel centred on a figure named Piranesi who lives in the House. He makes a careful record of his life, until he begins to receive messages from someone who obviously lives in the House with him. Beautifully crafted, Piranesi becomes an exploration of the meaning behind our words.

Read this book if…

★ You loved reading Emma Donoghue’s Room.
★ You believe that upsizing your lifestyle will help you live your best life or you feel like as you grow older, surprises occur less often.


No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood’s fiction debut, No One Is Talking About This, deals with the weight of words. Here real life collides with the virtual world for a woman known for her brilliant viral social media posts. But a text from her mother breaks her trajectory, and as real-life events collide with the absurd influence of social media, our protagonist begins to comprehend human nature. This novel will make you reconsider your own value and your own family ties.

Read this book if…

★ You loved Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror.
★ You’ve checked your phone every hour since you woke up today. Read this book because switching off afterwards will become easier.


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

Cherie Jones’s heartbreaking debut How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is a story of how abuse can isolate a life and a family. Set in a community in Barbados, an island paradise where poverty and violence are rife, four women hope to change their fate. The consequences of breaking unspoken rules are foretold by the Grandmother and her tale of the one-armed sister. This novel, like fellow shortlistee Yaa Gyasi’s second novel Transcendent Kingdom, explores the consequences of generational violence.

Read this book if…

★ You love reading anything by Maya Angelou.
★ You’re longing for the sand between your toes and the smell of the sea. Read it to understand how loneliness happens when you don’t share your decision-making processes with those who love you.

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Transcendent Kingdom: Shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021

Transcendent Kingdom: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021

Yaa Gyasi

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