The shortlist for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced following much anticipation last week. The winner will be announced on 14 June, but it is one of those literary prizes where you suspect all of the finalists feel like winners due to the sense of warmth and inclusivity around it. This prize has really taken off in recent years thanks to some brilliant marketing activity. The team made fantastic hay out of the Covid lockdowns, running Zoom chats with shortlisted authors (and many hundreds of fans) where you really felt like you were part of the contest. All facilitated by the inimitable Kate Mosse, of course, the dynamic founder of the Prize. Unlike the Booker prize the Women’s Prize also has a sense of humility about it; it doesn’t confine itself to purely literary novels. This is a contest that celebrates the joy of reading in its widest sense, with podcasts, blogs and email newsletters that really keep you engaged.
This year’s shortlist of six books includes three debut novels and three from established authors.
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
This book has been getting a lot of attention. It is the author’s debut novel, though her short stories and non-fiction work have garnered praise. Set in 1970s London it tells the story of Yamaye, a young black woman and her relationship with the music she identifies with as part of her cultural inheritance, dub reggae. She meets and falls in love with Moose, but when their love affair ends, it triggers a search for identity and a personal transformation.
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
Another author better known for her short stories, Irish writer Louise Kennedy’s novel is set in Belfast during the period known as ‘the Troubles’, a poignant moment to remember those terrible days as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It tells the story of primary school teacher Cushla navigating love and politics in the most challenging of circumstances. For most of us it is hard to imagine what it must be like to try and live an ordinary life surrounded by violence and threat but if the reviews are anything to go by, Louise Kennedy has pulled it off here.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s 1998 best-selling novel The Poisonwood Bible remains one of the best books I have ever read – it had such a powerful impact on me. This literary giant needs no introduction and has both won and been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize before. Demon Copperhead is said to be her modern take on Dickens’s David Copperfield where a young man, born into poverty in Virginia tries to make his way in the world in a modern America beset by social problems and prejudice.
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
Another debit novel, this one also set in against the backdrop of conflict, this time Sarajevo in 1992. As we watch the terrible events in Ukraine unfold day after day it is easy to forget that only thirty years another devastating war took place on the European continent and destroyed a country. This novel tells the story of Zora, an artist and teacher who must decide whether to flee their home or try to stay and defend their city against siege.
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Another author who needs no introduction, having won this prize a mere three years ago with her incredible novel Hamnet. This is her follow-up and is another work of historical fiction, this time set in Renaissance Italy. Sixteen year old Lucrezia has been married off to a powerful Duke, Alfonso, whom she believes plans to kill her. Powerless and alone she must try and save her own life. Based on a real person, it looks like Maggie O’Farrell has produced yet another literary gem.
Pod by Laline Paull
This looks to be the most unconventional book on the shortlist, where the central character is a dolphin. Afflicted by a form of deafness which isolates her within her family group, Ea survives a tragedy that kills other members of her family. Young and alone, she must navigate the treacherous oceans and multiple dangers. Exploring themes of family and belonging Pod also remninds us of the fragility of our natural environment and the impact humanity has had on other species.
Quite a shortlist! I would love to think that I might be able to get through them all before the winner is announced – six weeks and counting! I hardly know where to start.