The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction—the UK’s most prestigious annual book award celebrating and honoring women’s fiction—was revealed yesterday.
This year’s diverse list of finalists includes Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Troubles-set novel, Milkman; Oyinkan Braithwaite’s darkly comic debut thriller, My Sister the Serial Killer; and Tayari Jones’ harrowing tale of false imprisonment, An American Marriage.
The winner (announced on June 5) will receive a cool £30,000, as well as a limited edition bronze figurine called the ‘Bessie.’
Previous winners include Zadie Smith, Téa Obreht, Marilynne Robinson, Helen Dunmore, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Below, we take a closer look at what the critics wrote about each of the finalist titles.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
“Pat Barker’s brilliant new novelistic retelling of The Iliad puts the experience of women like Andromache at the heart of the story … Barker’s novel has a very clear feminist message about the struggle for women to extricate themselves from male-dominated narratives. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have felt preachy. The attempt to provide Briseis with a happy ending is thin, and sometimes the female characters’ legitimate outrage seems a bit predictable … One wonders if any woman in archaic Greece, even a former queen, would have quite the self-assurance of Barker’s Briseis. But, of course, there is no way to be sure: no words from women in this period survive but Barker is surely right to paint them as thoughtful, diverse, rounded human beings, whose humanity hardly ever dawns on their captors, owners and husbands. This central historical insight feels entirely truthful … This is an important, powerful, memorable book that invites us to look differently not only at The Iliad but at our own ways of telling stories about the past and the present, and at how anger and hatred play out in our societies … Barker’s novel is an invitation to tell those forgotten stories, and to listen for voices silenced by history and power.”
–Emily Wilson (The Guardian)
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
“Oyinkan Braithwaite’s rich, dark debut about Korede, a dutiful Nigerian nurse, and her sociopathic younger sister is more nuanced than its title might suggest … Though this isn’t a whodunit, My Sister, The Serial Killer is a riveting story with a handful of well-timed twists, mixed with laugh-out loud observations about family, co-workers, and corrupt cops. Braithwaite doesn’t mock the murders as comic fodder, and that’s just one of the unexpected pleasures of her quirky novel. What could have been a series of grisly murders and dead-boyfriend punch lines is instead a clever, affecting examination of siblings bound by a secret with a body count.”
–Renée Graham (The Boston Globe)
Milkman by Anna Burns
“For all the simplicity of its setup, Milkman is a richly complex portrayal of a besieged community and its traumatized citizens, of lives lived within many concentric circles of oppression … Among Burns’ singular strengths as a writer is her ability to address the topics of trauma and tyranny with a playfulness that somehow never diminishes the sense of her absolute seriousness … The book’s long sentences, its penchant for the exhaustive, can at times be challenging, and there were stretches where I found its uncanny energies stagnated for too long. But it also seems clear to me that these insistent strategies are in service of the book’s mood of total claustrophobia, and that they contribute to, rather than diminish, its overall effectiveness … There is a pulsating menace at the heart of the book, of which the title character is an uncannily indeterminate avatar, but also a deep sadness at the human cost of conflict … For all the darkness of the world it illuminates, Milkman is as strange and variegated and brilliant as a northern sunset. You just have to turn your face toward it, and give it your full attention.”
–Mark O’Connell (Slate)
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
“Ordinary People in many ways resembles a traditional novel: realistic, concerned with social mores and psychological states, full of sharp descriptive language. Still, if you asked its characters to account for their unhappiness, they might complain that their lives don’t feel sufficiently plotted, especially compared to the artistic and media narratives that they consume … This sense of being un- or under-written raises the spectre of another English author, Rachel Cusk … It’s possible to read Ordinary People, too, as a reply to Cusk … Despite its apparent traditionalism, the book itself resists the conventions of steadily rising action or dénouement … These choices create mini-ruptures, but they don’t produce the novel’s most heightened moments, which are to be found, instead, in passages of exceptionally sensitive writing … There is a richness to the novel’s smaller units, its phrases and passing moods … [There is] a surprising, convulsive twist … But it succeeds as an expression of the couple’s desperation and a glimpse at how the slog of domesticity can turn to phantasmagoria.”
–Katy Waldman (The New Yorker)
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
“[R]ather than dwell on the moral implications of this violent and false imprisonment of a black man, Jones almost speeds through it; specifics of the arrest and the trial are provided in a matter of paragraphs. The terseness doesn’t make these details any less affecting, but does suggest them as essential context for the dissolving marriage at the novel’s core. Jones’s exploration is a breathtaking look at who and what can be complicit in that breakdown … Her writing illuminates the bits and pieces of a marriage: those almost imperceptible moments that make it, break it, and forcefully tear it apart. Touching on familiar marital aspects (infidelity, stasis, competition), Jones suggests that it is the amalgamation of these things, not any particular isolated instance, that can indelibly fracture a relationship … It becomes head-spinning how Jones upends all expectations, flipping the reader’s perceptions and offering unexpected moments of clarity.”
–Tori Latham (The Atlantic)
Circe by Madeline Miller
“Miller’s novel charms like a good bedtime story; she understands our inexhaustible appetite for myths starring our favorite characters, and that we don’t want these stories to end … Miller’s technique echoes Circe’s alchemical powers, as she makes these minor characters more than mere references. She performs a sleight of hand on the gods; instead of figures of ambivalent and shifting grace, favoritism, and destruction in relation to humanity, Miller’s gods for the most part hold human beings in contempt. The gods are chilling: their immortality makes them incapable of love … Miller has a gift for creating settings that summarize their inhabitants, along with swiftly brushstroked traits and habits that define characters … Miller transcends her fairy-tale models, though she returns to them at the book’s conclusion, somewhat predictably, but still poignantly. Miller understands that the best fairy tales are not only wish fulfillments but also stories of the denial of wishes. She manages to combine both elements in her finale, creating an ending that is simultaneously happy and unhappy.”
–Patricia Storace (The New York Review of Books)