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10 best books written by women: From Hilary Mantel to Sally Rooney

It’s impossible to list all the superb books by female writers but we’ve selected some of the best recent novels

Emma Lee-Potter
Tuesday 28 July 2020 07:45 BST
Subjects are as wide as Henry VIII’s most feared adviser, domestic slaves in Lagos and the lives of black women in contemporary Britain
Subjects are as wide as Henry VIII’s most feared adviser, domestic slaves in Lagos and the lives of black women in contemporary Britain

Women authors have written many of the most successful novels in history – although some of them didn’t initially get the credit they deserved.

The first four novels by the French writer Colette all appeared under her first husband’s pen name, Willy. He won fame and fortune for books like Claudine at School and it was only after Willy’s death that Colette went to court to confirm that she was the sole author and had his name removed from the covers.

At the start of their careers Charlotte, Anne and Emily Bronte all took male pseudonyms – Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell respectively – after poet laureate Robert Southey told Charlotte that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life”.

Mary Ann Evans used the pen name of George Eliot for books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner and when Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published anonymously many readers attributed it to her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Some of today’s novelists have chosen to use their initials rather than their first names. JK Rowling opted to use her initials for her Harry Potter books after publishers suggested young male readers might be put off by a female author. Later on, she published her Cormoran Strike crime novels under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Many of the most outstanding novels of the past two years are by women writers, including Hilary Mantel, Bernardine Evaristo, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Ann Patchett, Candice Carty-Williams, Margaret Atwood, Abi Dare and Sally Rooney. It’s exciting to see the myriad subjects they’ve chosen to write about, such as Henry VIII’s most feared adviser, domestic slaves in Lagos and the lives of black women in contemporary Britain.

It’s impossible to list all the superb books by women writers but we’ve selected some of the best novels that have been published recently, choosing them on the brilliance of their writing, their originality and their readability. Sally Rooney’s Normal People was first published in 2018 but has garnered even more praise following the recent BBC dramatisation while Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams all came out in paperback this year.

Watch out, too, for the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The shortlist was revealed in April and the winner will be announced in September, judged, as always, on “accessibility, originality and excellence in writing by women”.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett, published by Bloomsbury

Ann Patchett’s novel about two siblings, their unusual childhood home and a past that they can’t let go was longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and we’re surprised it didn’t make the shortlist. Danny Conroy and his older sister Maeve grow up in The Dutch House, a grand mansion on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Their father, a self-made property magnate, is a distant figure and their mother has mysteriously walked out but the siblings are devoted to each other. But one day their father brings the ghastly Andrea home, along with Andrea’s two young daughters, and Danny and Maeve are forced to endure even greater sadness than before. Patchett writes beautifully about family, love and loss and the powerful bonds that bind us all. This is a novel that stayed in our minds long after we finished reading.

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‘Remain Silent’ by Susie Steiner, published by The Borough Press

Fans have been eagerly anticipating the third installment in Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw series and Remain Silent is definitely worth the wait. Manon, a detective inspector in the Cambridgeshire police, is a larger-than-life character – often rude, frequently chaotic but great at her job. When the body of a young migrant is discovered hanging from a tree there’s no signs of a struggle and no indication that his death was anything other than a tragic suicide – except for a note pinned to his trousers, written in Lithuanian and saying “the dead cannot speak”. Steiner combines compelling plots with astute social commentary and this is every bit as good as her first two Manon Bradshaw novels.

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‘The Girl with the Louding Voice’ by Abi Daré, published by Sceptre

Abi Daré grew up in Nigeria and was inspired to write The Girl with the Louding Voice by her memories of the young, impoverished housemaids who worked for middle-class families in Lagos. Fourteen-year-old Adunni, her spirited heroine, has ambitions to become a teacher but after the death of her adored mother her father forces her into an abusive marriage with a local taxi driver who already has two wives and four children. When tragedy strikes she flees her husband and is sold as a domestic slave to a wealthy household in Lagos, only to suffer unspeakable cruelty all over again. Adunni’s humour and fierce determination to change her destiny shine through this remarkable debut novel.

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‘Writers & Lovers’ by Lily King, published by Picador

Casey Peabody feels like she has the whole world on her shoulders. At 31, she’s living in a rented potting shed in Massachusetts, her mother has just died and she’s recovering from a devastating love affair. She makes ends meet by waitressing at a high-end restaurant but her life’s ambition is to get the novel she’s been writing for six years published. US writer Lily King has won a host of awards for her books and this wise, witty and generous-spirited novel about a struggling writer striving to get her voice heard, pay her bills and come to terms with her grief is a delight. She’s brilliant on the trials and tribulations of restaurant workers and the struggles of aspiring writers, complete with rejection letters and constant doubt that their novels are any good.

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The verdict: Books written by women

We found it virtually impossible to choose between these outstanding novels but for its tender evocation of two siblings who support each other through the decades The Dutch House by Ann Patchett got our vote. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is the remarkable story of 12 black women and their interconnected lives and Remain Silent by Susie Steiner is the best written crime novel we’ve read in ages.

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