Today the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 of 16 novels was announced.
Set up to empower all women to raise their voice and own their story, the prize shines light on outstanding and ambitious fiction by women from anywhere in the world, regardless of their age, race, nationality or background.
The Women’s Prize Trust exists to create positive change in the world through books by women. Their original ideas, smart thinking and excellent writing is believed to be more vital now than ever.
A New Prize for 2024
A new annual book prize, the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction will be launched in 2024, a response to new research that shows significant equality in this area.
I’m excited about the idea of this prize, bringing together creative nonfiction, memoir, nature writing, the prize will provide a platform to highlight this mixed genre which women make such a significant contribution to.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction Long List
Below are summaries for each of the 16 books longlisted to help you decide whether to add something to your TBR. The one book I had really hoped to see on the list was Okwiri Oduor’s Things They Lost. This book will definitely be on my end of year Top Fiction Reads for 2023. Sadly it’s not on the list. I haven’t read any of these – yet!
The novels on this years list span locations range from Renaissance Italy, rural India, the Siege of Sarajevo, Northern Ireland during The Troubles and opioid-infested Virginia, to an imaginary kingdom ruled by animals, a hallucinatory old cinema and an underwater world populated with extraordinary creatures.
Chair of judges, broadcaster and writer Louise Minchin said:
‘This year’s longlist is a glorious celebration of the boundless imagination and creative ambition of women writers over the past year. Every one of these 16 books is excellent and original in its own individual way; they all offer fresh perspectives on history and humanity, exploring hard truths with empathy, sensitivity, directness, and sometimes infectious humour. There is something here for all readers! It has truly been a life-enhancing experience to judge the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, and we are looking forward to celebrating these voices that need to be heard.’
I am tempted by many on the list, Cursed Bread and I Am a Fan have been in the air, as has Jennifer Croft’s Homesick, I just finished and recommend reading her excellent translation of Two Sherpas. Laline Paull’s Pod intrigues after I loved her fabulous novel The Bees, Trespasses by Louise Kennedy I’m looking forward to reading next week for #ReadingIrelandMonth23. Wandering Souls looks like a promising debut and the Medusa retelling intrigues. I’m sure Barbara Kingsolver & Maggie O’Farrell’s novels will be great reads.
The 16 Novels
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris (Yugoslav/Cornish – UK) (Historical Fiction)
Sarajevo, spring 1992. Each night, nationalist gangs erect barricades, splitting the diverse city into ethnic enclaves; each morning, the residents – Muslim, Croat or Serb – push the makeshift barriers aside.
When violence finally spills over, Zora, an artist and teacher, sends her husband and elderly mother to safety with her daughter in England. Reluctant to believe hostilities will last more than a handful of weeks, she stays behind while the city falls under siege. As the assault deepens and everything they love is laid to waste, Zora and her friends are forced to rebuild themselves, over and over. Theirs is a breathtaking story of disintegration, resilience and hope.
Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova (Canada) (Gothic Historical Fiction set in Edinburgh)
When Holly applies for a job at the Paradise – one of the city’s oldest cinemas, she thinks it will be like any other shift work. She cleans toilets, sweeps popcorn, avoids the belligerent owner, Iris, and is ignored by her aloof, tight-knit colleagues who seem as much a part of the building as its fraying carpets and endless dirt. Dreadful, lonely weeks pass while she longs for their approval, a silent voyeur. When she finally gains the trust of this cryptic band of oddballs, Holly transforms from silent drudge to rebellious insider and gradually becomes part of the Paradise – unearthing its secrets, learning its history and haunting its corridors after hours with the other ushers. When violence strikes, tempers change and the group, eyes still affixed to the screen, starts rapidly to go awry…
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh (UK) (Gothic fiction)
A novel of obsession that centres on the real unsolved mystery of the 1951 mass poisoning of a French village. Reeling in the aftermath of war, the small town of Pont-Saint-Esprit collectively lost its mind. Some historians believe the mysterious illness and violent hallucinations were caused by spoiled bread; others claim it was the result of covert government testing on the local population.
In that town lived a woman named Elodie. The baker’s wife: she was an unremarkable person who yearned to transcend her dull existence. When a charming new couple arrived in town, the forceful ambassador and his sharp-toothed wife Violet, Elodie was drawn into their orbit. Thus began a dangerous game of cat and mouse – but who was the predator and on whom did they prey?
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (US) (Fan Fiction)
Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, the story of a boy born to a teenage single mother in a trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labour, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities. Inspired by Dicken’s David Copperfield, this novel speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks (Jamaican/British) (Historical Fiction)
Set amid the Jamaican diaspora in London at the dawn of 1980s, a mesmerizing story of love, loss, and search for home, that vibrates with the liberating power of music.
Yamaye lives for the weekend, to go raving with friends, the “Tombstone Estate gyals,” at The Crypt, an underground dub reggae club. Raised by a distant father after her mother’s disappearance, Yamaye craves the oblivion of sound – to escape into the rhythms of smoke-filled nights, to discover who she is in the dance-hall darkness.
When Yamaye meets Moose, a soulful carpenter who shares her Jamaican heritage, a path toward a different kind of future opens until Babylon rushes in. In a devastating cascade of violence that pits state power against her loved ones and her community, Yamaye loses everything. Friendless and adrift, she embarks on a journey from the Bristol underworld to Jamaica, where past and present collide with explosive consequences.
Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) (Fiction)
A novel that chronicles the fall of an oppressive regime, and the chaotic, kinetic potential for real liberation that rises in its wake. Glory centers around the unexpected fall of Old Horse, a long-serving leader of a fictional country, and the drama that follows for a rumbustious nation of animals on the path to true liberation. Inspired by the unexpected fall by coup, in November 2017, of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of nearly four decades, Bulawayo’s bold, vividly imagined novel shows a country imploding, narrated by a chorus of animal voices who unveil the ruthlessness and cold strategy required to uphold the illusion of absolute power, and the imagination and bullet-proof optimism to overthrow it completely.
Homesick by Jennifer Croft (US) (autofiction)
The coming of age story of an award-winning translator, Homesick is about learning to love language in its many forms, healing through words and the promises and perils of empathy and sisterhood.
Sisters Amy and Zoe grow up in Oklahoma where they are homeschooled for an unexpected reason: Zoe suffers from debilitating and mysterious seizures, spending her childhood in hospitals as she undergoes surgeries. Meanwhile, Amy flourishes intellectually, showing an innate ability to glean a world beyond the troubles in her home life, exploring that world through languages first. Amy’s first love appears in the form of her Russian tutor Sasha, but when she enters university at the age of 15 her life changes drastically and with tragic results.
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel (UK) (Contemporary Fiction)
A single speaker uses the story of their experience in a seemingly unequal, unfaithful relationship as a prism through which to examine the complicated hold we each have on one another. With a clear and unforgiving eye, the narrator unpicks the behaviour of all involved, herself included, making connections between the power struggles at the heart of human relationships and those of the wider world, in turn offering a devastating critique of access, social media, patriarchal hetero-normative relationships, and our cultural obsession with status and how that status is conveyed.
A new voice in literature, capable of rendering a range of emotions and visceral experiences on the page. Sex, violence, politics, tenderness, humour—Patel handles them all with both originality and dexterity of voice.
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow (US) (Historical Fiction)
Three generations of a Southern Black family and one daughter’s discovery that she has the power to change her family’s legacy.
Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of unforgettable voices that move back and forth in time, Memphis paints an indelible portrait of inheritance, celebrating the full complexity of what we pass down, in a family and as a country: brutality and justice, faith and forgiveness, sacrifice and love.
Pod by Laline Paull (UK) (Fantasy Fiction)
Pod takes the reader into the depths of the ocean and into the world of its fascinating inhabitants – through the eyes of the beautiful Ea, a spinner dolphin. An immersive and transformative novel of an ocean world—its extraordinary creatures, mysteries, and mythologies – increasingly haunted by the cruelty and ignorance of the human race.
Ea has always felt like an outsider. As a spinner dolphin who has recently come of age, she’s now expected to join in the elaborate rituals that unite her pod. But Ea suffers from a type of deafness that prevents her from mastering the art of spinning. When catastrophe befalls her family and Ea knows she is partly to blame, she decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and leave the pod.
As Ea ventures out, she discovers dangers everywhere, from lurking predators to strange objects floating in the water. The ocean itself is changing; creatures are mutating, demonic noises pierce the depths, whole species of fish disappear into the sky above. Just as she is coming to terms with her solitude, a chance encounter with a group of arrogant bottlenoses will irrevocably alter the course of her life.
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes (UK) (Greek Mythology Retelling)
A fresh take on the story of Medusa, the original monstered woman. The only mortal in a family of gods, Medusa is the youngest of the Gorgon sisters. Unlike her siblings, Medusa grows older, experiences change, feels weakness. Her mortal lifespan gives her an urgency that her family will never know.
Classicist and comedian Natalie Haynes turns our understanding of this legendary myth on its head, bringing empathy and nuance to one of the earliest stories in which a woman–injured by a powerful man–is blamed, punished, and monstered for the assault. Delving into the origins of this mythic tale, Haynes revitalizes and reconstructs Medusa’s story with her passion and fierce wit, offering a timely retelling of this classic myth that speaks to us today.
The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff (US) (Mystery/Thriller)
Geeta’s no-good husband disappeared 5 years ago. She didn’t kill him, but everyone thinks she did–no matter how much she protests.
She soon discovers that being known as a “self-made” widow has some surprising perks. No one messes with her, no one threatens her, and no one tries to control (ahem, marry) her. It’s even been good for her business; no one wants to risk getting on her bad side by not buying her jewelry.
Freedom must look good on Geeta, because other women in the village have started asking for her help to get rid of their own no-good husbands…but not all of them are asking nicely. Now that Geeta’s fearsome reputation has become a double-edged sword, she must decide how far to go to protect it, along with the life she’s built. Because even the best-laid plans of would-be widows tend to go awry.
The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie (US) (Comedy)
Penny Rush has problems. Her marriage is over, and she’s quit her job. Her mother and stepfather went missing in the Australian outback five years ago; her mentally imbalanced father provokes her; her grandmother, Dr. Pincer, keeps experiments in the refrigerator and something worse in the woodshed. But Penny is a virtuoso at what’s possible when all else fails.
In a quest for a fresh start, this slyly humorous, winsome novel finds the purpose in life’s curve balls, insisting that even when we are painfully warped by those we love most, we can be brought closer to our truest selves.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (UK/Ireland) (Historical Fiction)
The world of Renaissance Italy brought to jewel-bright life in a fictional portrait of the young duchess Lucrezia de’ Medici as she makes her way in a troubled courtin 1550 Florence.
Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy (Northern Ireland) (Contemporary Fiction)
Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a shattering novel about a young woman caught between allegiance to community and a dangerous passion.
Amid daily reports of violence, Cushla lives a quiet life with her mother in a small town near Belfast. By day she teaches at a parochial school; at night she fills in at her family’s pub. There she meets Michael Agnew, a barrister who’s made a name for himself defending IRA members. Against her better judgment – Michael is not only Protestant but older, and married – Cushla lets herself get drawn in by him and his sophisticated world, and an affair ignites. Then the father of a student is savagely beaten, setting in motion a chain reaction that will threaten everything, and everyone, Cushla most wants to protect.
As tender as it is unflinching, Trespasses is a heart-pounding, heart-rending drama of thwarted love and irreconcilable loyalties, in a place what you come from seems to count more than what you do, or whom you cherish.
Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin (UK/Vietnam) (Historical Fiction)
One night, not long after the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh and Minh flee their village and embark on a perilous boat journey to Hong Kong. Their parents and four younger siblings make the crossing in another vessel but as weeks go by it becomes clear that only one party has survived the voyage. Anh, Thanh and Minh suddenly find themselves alone in the world, without family or home. They travel on, navigating refugee camps and resettlement centres until, by a twist of fate, they arrive in Thatcher’s Britain. Here they must somehow build new lives with only each other to turn to, but will that be enough in a place that doesn’t seem to want them?
The Shortlist Then?
The short list of six novels will be announced on 26 April and the winner on 14 June.
So what might you be tempted to read from this list?
Have you read anything on here that you loved?