Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 longlist: The inspiring books to read

The award champions female voices in literature from around the world

Eva Waite-Taylor
Wednesday 10 March 2021 17:41
<p>Included are six dazzling debuts and a previous winner </p>

Included are six dazzling debuts and a previous winner

Reading a truly remarkable novel can be a wonderful way to pass the time – transporting you far and wide, putting you in other people’s shoes and sparking emotion.

If your reading list is in a fallow period, the announcement of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 longlist will hopefully provide the inspiration you need.

Read more: What the IndyBest team have been reading and loving in lockdown

Founded in 1996, it’s one of the UK’s most prestigious literary awards, showcasing the remarkable originality, accessibility and excellence of novels written by women from around the world. So the longlist offers an exciting opportunity to discover a range of ambitious and outstanding literature.

The 16 books on the longlist are novels written by women and published in the UK between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, and were selected by a panel of five judges: Bernardine Evaristo (chair of the judges), novelist; Elizabeth Day, podcaster, author and journalist; Vick Hope, TV and radio presenter, journalist and writer; Nesrine Malik, print columnist and writer; and Sarah-Jane Mee, news presenter and broadcaster.

Included on the list are six dazzling debut novels, as well as a previously longlisted author and one former winner who has also been shortlisted twice before (Ali Smith).

Speaking about the longlist, Evaristo said: “We read so many brilliant novels for this year’s prize and had an energetic judging session where we discussed our passions, opinions and preferences.”

In order to reach the collection of 16 standout novels, the judges inevitably had to let some “very deserving books go”, but the final list represents a “truly wide and varied range of fiction by women that reflects multiple perspectives, narrative styles and preoccupations,” Evaristo said.

Read more: The Jhalak Prize 2021 longlist books you need to read

It’s fiction’s unique ability to take us on a journey through time and space to new, unchartered territories that makes it constantly exciting. But, while publishing has become increasingly more inclusive, there’s a continued need for greater access to a range of novelist's voices. As such, the Women’s Prize for Fiction remains as important today as when it was first launched.

In honour of the announcement, we’ve taken a look at the whole longlist. Join us in celebrating, championing and supporting female writers from across the globe by adding these books to your “to-read” pile now.

You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

'The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett, published by Dialogue Books

One of the most hotly anticipated books of last year, Vanishing Half spans the 1950s to the 1990s, from the Deep South to California. It’s deftly woven plot follows two twin sisters who take very different paths. Compelling and utterly original, Bennett explores questions of racism as well as expectations, lies, love and compassion. We are sure that this tale will stay with you long after you’ve put it down. Make sure you finish it before the TV series is aired, as HBO snapped it up after a 17-way auction – we told you it was a good’un.

‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

This is Chambers’s first novel in 10 years and it’s clearly been worth the wait – not only has landed itself a spot in the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, but it also took the top spot in our guide to the best new books to read in 2020. Set in 1957, it follows Jean Swinney, the features editor of the North Kent Echo, who spends her time writing about weddings and household hints. She lives a rather uneventful life until a Swiss woman named Gretchen Tilbury writes to the paper claiming her daughter is the result of a virgin birth. The editor then sets off to find out whether this is a miracle or a fraud. “This compassionate tale is exquisitely written and entranced us from the very first page,” said our writer.

'Piranesi’ by Susanna Clarke, published by Bloomsbury Publishing

Blending mystery and magic, this multi-layered fantasy story is narrated by Piranesi, who lives in “the House”. On Tuesdays and Fridays, he sees his friend, the Other, while sometimes he takes tributes to the Dead, but often he is alone. Piranesi is a tale of his surroundings and the mystery inhabitants within it, and it’s said to be a rich read with a gothic atmosphere.

‘The Golden Rule’ by Amanda Craig, published by Little, Brown

Taking inspiration from Strangers on a Train by Alfred Hitchcock and Beauty and the Beast, this is a story of deceit and deception. When Hannah, a poor, young single mother, is invited into the first-class carriage of the London to Penzance train she meets Jinni, the epitome of elegance and her complete opposite. Hannah’s life is turned upside down when they forge a plan to murder each other’s husbands.

Featuring in our guide of the best recent books written by women, our reviewer wrote that this is “perceptive and wise, particularly on the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor”.

'Exciting Times' by Naoise Dolan, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Set in Hong Kong, this sharp, witty and ultimately moving debut from Irish author Naoise Dolan explores a love triangle. Newly arrived 22-year-old English teacher Ava finds herself caught between the financial security of a non-committal banker and an alluring lawyer. Examining class and sex, Dolan brings fresh insights on modern love that will inevitably make this a hit among those who love a coming-of-age novel.

'Burnt Sugar' by Avni Doshi, published by Hamish Hamilton

A compelling debut about love, betrayal and obsession, Burnt Sugar tells the painstaking story of Antara, who comes to terms with the reality of her mother’s memory loss. Sharp and laced with wit, Doshi tests the limits of what we know for certain about the people we are closest to.

'Because Of You’ by Dawn French, published by Michael Joseph

Told with French’s unfailing wit and warmth, Because Of You is the tale of family bonds and the mother-daughter relationships that ultimately make us who we are. It explored the maternal bond and its challenges, as well as love and loss, mistakes and regrets.

‘Unsettled Ground’ by Claire Fuller, published by Fig Tree

This novel tells the stunning story of two middle-aged twins, Jeanie and Julius, who at the age of 51 still live with their mother, Dot. Following Dot’s death, the siblings’ carefully cultivated existence on the fringes of society begins to unravel as they discover more secrets, turning everything that they thought they knew about their lives on its head. Touching on themes of love, friendship and neighbours, it’s a powerful exploration of loneliness and isolation.

‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi, published by Viking

Transcendent Kingdom is a painstakingly moving portrait of a Ghanaian immigrant family that is ravaged by depression, addiction and loss. It’s told from the perspective of Gifty, a young woman on a quest to find her way back to herself and to her mother. The novel questions faith, religion, beliefs and mental health, as well as the different ways people handle challenges, such as racism and grief.

'How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House’ by Cherie Jones, published by Tinder Press

Set in Barbados, where poverty and misogyny exist under the surface, this remarkable debut from Jones focuses on the life of four women, each of whom is eager to escape the legacy of violence in a so-called “paradise”. Tackling themes of poverty, domestic abuse, drug trafficking and mother-daughter relationships with eloquence, Jones is a new voice to pay attention to.

'Luster’ by Raven Leilani, published by Picador

A sharp debut, Luster tells the story of 23-year-old Edie and her awkward journey through modern life, navigating dead-end hook-ups, crushed ambitions and an affair with a married man she met on a dating website. Touching on themes of womanhood, sexuality, power dynamics in relationships and race, as well as notions of loneliness and loss, Leilani’s writing is pacy and piercing. It’s a must-read that also featured in Barack Obama’s 2020 reading list.

‘No One Is Talking About This’ by Patricia Lockwood, published by Bloomsbury Circus

Featuring in The Independent’s guide to the books to look out for in 2021, No One Is Talking About This is the debut novel from American poet Patricia Lockwood and tells the story of how one woman’s life is turned upside down when something she posts on social media goes viral. Equal parts witty and unexpected, it covers internet culture and human connection in a wry and intelligent way.

‘Consent’ by Annabel Lyon, published by Atlantic Books

This novel follows two sets of sisters whose lives are linked when tragedy changes them forever. Exploring the complexities of their relationships as well as the carer-patient dynamic, it’s said to be a compelling and thrilling read.

‘Nothing But Blue Sky’ by Kathleen McMahon, published by Sandycove Press

A tender dissection of marriage, Nothing But Blue Sky follows David, a television journalist whose life is torn apart after the sudden death of his wife. Weaving together his reflections on their life together and present-day experiences, he questions everything he thought he knew about her in this intimate examination of love, loss and life itself.

‘Detransition, Baby’ by Torrey Peters, published by Serpent’s Tail

This quick-witted novel centres around two women – one transgender and one cisgender – whose lives are turned upside down following a surprise pregnancy. Dealing with important issues such as suicide, abuse towards trans people and what it means to be a mother, this is said to be both a timely and provocative read.

‘Summer’ by Ali Smith, published by Hamish Hamilton

The final book in Smith’s seasonal quartet that defines our turbulent era, Summer begins and ends in 2020 and takes on the big issues and challenges from the year, including Brexit, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd. Equal parts funny and moving, it also provides a glimmer of hope for the future.

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