Women’s Prize 2021 Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

So it’s that time of the year again! The Women’s Prize winner announcement is right around the corner, on September 8. I did actually succeed in my resolution not to read the entire longlist this year, but I somehow ended up reading 10/16, including the entire shortlist.

On the whole, from what I’ve read, I’m pretty ambivalent about this list — there were a couple of real highlights for me, but also a lot of duds, and I think the huge delay between the longlist announcement (March 8) and the winner announcement (September 8) deadened some of my excitement.

Round up of my 2021 Women’s Prize coverage:

Now here’s the shortlist ranked from what I would least to most like to see win.

6. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

This book just fell flat on its face for me — I admired what it was trying to do in its excavation of the dark realities of a small-town Caribbean tourist paradise, but I ultimately felt like its graphic portrayals of trauma were so extreme that they swallowed up the fictional elements, leaving me unconvinced by this story and these characters. That this sort of trauma is true to life, I have no doubt; but in a novel, it wasn’t able to convince me or hold my interest. I also didn’t get on with the writing style at all, meaning I solidly enjoyed reading this book the least.

5. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Another one that I felt did a poor job at balancing its social commentary with a compelling, convincing narrative; while reading both One-Armed Sister and Unsettled Ground I felt acutely aware that I was reading a fictional story about invented people; Jeanie and Julius never fully came to life for me, and I felt that this book was largely just spinning its wheels without really going anywhere. I felt like I ‘got the point’ fairly early on and then was just waiting for something bigger and better to materialize out of this story.

4. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This is the final entry to my ‘did not do a good job at balancing themes and story’ half of this list. While I felt that this book really excelled at its commentary on colorism and racial identity, it left a lot to be desired as a work of fiction. I had a lot of problems with this book — character development, writing style, heavy reliance on coincidence — but I think its biggest offense for me was how poorly it was structured. Of the three shortlisted books that I didn’t enjoy reading, The Vanishing Half would probably offend me the least as a winner: I think these are three really poorly written novels, if I’m being honest, but I felt that The Vanishing Half at least did the best job at its social commentary.

3. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

A really interesting thought-experiment on the inextricable nature of “reality” and “online life”, that I felt didn’t cut any corners in its development of a very harrowing narrative that runs parallel to its commentary on The Internet. I was so impressed by this book but what it didn’t have, for me, was staying power; much as I loved it at the time, I hardly ever think about it now, and when trying to recall the shortlist off the top of my head, this is the one I always forget.

2. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

A richly imaginative work that really stuck with me in its poignant depiction of loneliness. I wasn’t sure about this one going in, but Susanna Clarke’s lush and confident prose lured me in and I ended up enjoying every second that I spent in this strange world. (I also recently realized something about what happens in my head when I read, which is that I visualize interior spaces very vividly, which is probably why this worked so well for me when I don’t tend to love descriptive writing.) But anyway, back to the Women’s Prize — I don’t expect this to win, but I think it would be an exciting and unconventional choice.

1. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This book does what so many on this shortlist failed to do for me — it takes a heart-wrenching narrative and a wide array of themes and subjects and it synthesizes them into a singular, spectacular novel. This is one of the shorter books on the shortlist and still not a single one of its 264 pages is wasted — Gyasi’s prose is exquisite and her structure and pacing are impeccable. This manages to be both a hard-hitting exploration of the connection between science and faith, and also a moving story about a broken family, and I would love so much to see this exceptional book win next week.

Winner Prediction:

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I don’t particularly want to see this book win, but I think it’s inevitable. The Vanishing Half has been lauded for its well-constructed characters, for its compelling storytelling, and for its heart-wrenching depiction of the fractured bond between two sisters. I didn’t personally see or feel any of that, but obviously the judges do, or it wouldn’t have made it this far. The fact that it’s topical, that it’s SO successful in the U.S., and that it’s supposedly a heartbreaking story is the right combination of factors that will give it the edge up above the other shortlisters, I think. It’s hard to describe something that you can’t even fully see, but so many readers are finding a real magic in this novel that I’m really expecting it to take home the prize.

So to recap: the only two novels I’m actively rooting for are Transcendent Kingdom and Piranesi; I don’t expect No One is Talking About This to win and I think I’ll be some sort of combination of impressed and bemused if it does; I’m resigned to The Vanishing Half; and Unsettled Ground and How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House are the two that I’ll be the most actively irritated by.

But those are just my personal thoughts — as always, good luck to all the shortlisters.

What are you guys expecting and hoping to see win?

9 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2021 Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

  1. Transcendent Kingdom is my favourite and I think / hope it has a decent chance of winning. Piranesi is my runner-up, but I didn’t think it could match TK. I got on better with The Vanishing Half than you did, but I hope it won’t win. I thought it was great entertainment, but too much of a lightweight to actually win.

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  2. I agree that The Vanishing Half feels very likely to take the win, and while it worked better for me than it did for you, I’d probably still prefer to see Transcendent Kingdom clinch it. I didn’t ~love~ Piranesi but it would be fun to see an unashamed genre piece win a major literary prize!

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  3. Our rankings are very similar but I’ve dared to dream Transcendent Kingdom might actually win. The Vanishing Half has had so much attention and really doesn’t need any more (but I thought that about An American Marriage a couple years back…)

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  4. Having read only two of the shortlist, your prediction of a win for Vanishing Half seems realistic. Though I wouldn’t be shocked if Transcendent Kingdom wins too. Those are the two I seem to have seen people talking about, reading, and buying the most frequently. Though it’s possible I exist in kind of a book bubble!

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  5. I’ve been expecting The Vanishing Half to win the whole way through — it just feels like the sort of safe issues book that the Prize is comfortable with, very much in the vein of An American Marriage, like you and Laura say. (At least it has a trans character? Baby steps?) But I would be delighted to see Transcendent Kingdom take it instead.

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  6. first of all: KUDOS TO YOU for reading the shortlist!! both the longlist and the shortlist have been so underwhelming to me this year…and i definitely agree that The Vanishing Half is probably going to win – there’s been so much buzz around it ever since it came out that it feels inevitable

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