It has become a bit of a tradition for me to review the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist for TOAST, and it’s that time of year again, so let’s dive in! The longlist of 16 books was announced in March, and now a shortlist of six books is going head-to-head; the winner will be announced on the 14th June.

I have read the entire longlist, so before I tell you my thoughts on the final six, let me tell you about some of my favourite books from this year’s longlist which didn’t make the cut.

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow is a poetic family saga. It is sharp and precise; every word on the page has earned its place. Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova is a grungy little book set in an independent cinema — think Ottessa Moshfegh meets Muriel Spark. Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin is a layered piece about a family moving to the UK after the Vietnam War. Inspired by the author’s family history, and novels such as Human Acts by Han Kang, it’s a short book with a lot to say. The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff dances between hilarious and deadly serious. A story about male violence against women, it explores the caste system in India, surprising friendships and outrageous gossip. Finally, I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel is a wicked book with a delightfully detestable narrator who will make you laugh and also doubt yourself.

Now, to the shortlist. There are two books on this year’s list that were sadly not my cup of tea. Pod by Laline Paull is a book that says lots of necessary things about the climate crisis and displacement, but – told from the point of view of a dolphin, and other characters – I was unable to suspend my disbelief. Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris is a novel set during the siege of Sarajevo, and the main character paints bridges, a symbolism for peace. Whilst it is a moving book, it has some heavy-handed imagery, which took me out of the story. However, please check out these titles if they appeal to you — we all love different things!

There were a lot of debuts on this year’s list and Trespasses by Louise Kennedy is one of them. Set in a small town outside Belfast, we follow Cushla, a teacher who is trying to help her young students forget about the Troubles, but the outside world keeps seeping into their classroom, and every part of their lives. This well-crafted novel is a series of "if onlys", and though the ending felt a little predictable, I think that was the point: it’s a crushing inevitability, grabbing at the reader throughout.

Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks is a book I’d particularly recommend on audio. Yamaye loves dub music and raves, visiting her favourite club, the Crypt, as an escape from her flat where “grey-white curtains billow like spirits… and metal coffin lifts shuttle between heaven and hell.” A novel about excavating the past, and raising up Black women’s voices, the audiobook of Fire Rush includes music, and Yamaye’s singing, so with headphones on, you feel as though the novel is dancing all around you.

There are two books on the shortlist by previous winners of The Women’s Prize. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver uses Dickens as a jumping-off point for discussing poverty in modern-day Appalachia, though you don’t need to have read his novel to appreciate this one. Whilst it wasn’t my favourite book out of the six, I thought its voice was very strong, and the writing itself, on a sentence-based level, was stunning. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took this year’s prize.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell was a book I reviewed earlier this year: a historical novel reimagining the short life of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara, a woman rumoured to have been murdered by her husband. The reader is told this in a whisper before the story begins, allowing a sense of unease to permeate. Using portraiture as a metaphor for viewing characters differently depending on the light, it’s a rich text with a twist or two up its sleeve.

Have you read any of this year’s Women’s Prize books? Let us know in a comment below for the chance to win a copy of this year’s six shortlisted titles. The giveaway winner will be selected at random, and we will email you if you are successful. Good luck!

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on the 14th June.

Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.

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Lovely article, I agree with many of your sentiments! I read and loved The Marriage Portrait, greatly enjoyed Demon Copperhead, and thought the Dog of the North was lots of fun. I didn’t really enjoy Cursed Bread very much Stone Blind was decently done and entertaining though I wasn’t hanging off of every word… I’m a Fan is probably my favorite from the longlist I have read so far! I’m trying to read each book from the longlist this year since all of the titles looked so intriguing, and I’ve never read an entire prize list before.

Caroline 1 year ago

I liked The Marriage Portrait and Demon Copperhead, yet to find a finalist I love yet, though after reading your review I’m looking forward to listening to Fire Rush on audio😁

Lynne 1 year ago

Would love to give The Marriage Portrait and Trespasses a go in particular

Helen 1 year ago

Not read any so far, but Black Butterflies will be read very soon 🙌

Laura 1 year ago

As someone from Northern Ireland I can’t wait to read Trespasses. The Marriage Portrait is also on my TBR list. Thank you for the reviews of them all – can’t wait to start reading.

Emma 1 year ago

I have read The Marriage Portrait and didn’t love it, it was a bit too slow for me. I also started Black Butterflies but put it down to read something else and didn’t finish it yet. I wonder if this is open internationally as I don’t live in the UK, but either way lol

Martha 1 year ago

I usually try to read at least some of the shortlist (favourites last year were Great Circle and Sorrow & Bliss), but haven’t managed to read any from this year yet. They’re all on my TBR list though… I adore Maggie O’Farrell and Barbara Kingsolver, so am excited to dive into them when I get the chance! Lovely article, as always x

Claire 1 year ago

Thank you for this lovely article about all of the books on the (short)list and I feel really embarrassed that I haven’t read one of them yet… I have definitely set my mind to reading the Marriage Portret first and I was thinking of adding Pod to my tbr list, but now I’m having second thoughts!

Sheena 1 year ago

Great article! I can’t wait to read Pod and Tresspasses. I don’t know if I need to read David Copperfield before Demon Copperhead – I might just go ahead and read the latter first!

Emer 1 year ago

I would love to read the Maggie O’Farrell and Black Butterflies!!

Jane 1 year ago

I have read Demon Copperhead and whilst I definitely agree the writing itself was beautiful I just felt that with the setting and the premise it could have explored so much more than it did – felt it stuck so closely to the source material it missed opportunities for important discussions and themes that could have been explored. I have been excited about Memphis since I heard about it and hope to pick that up!

Olivia 1 year ago

So far from the shortlist I’ve only read (and enjoyed!) Demon Copperhead, but the rest are definitely on my to read list.

Katie 1 year ago

Thanks for such an inviting review of these books. I’m going to enjoy reading them soon 😊

Karen 1 year ago

I am currently listening to the audiobook for Dekon Cooperhead by Barbara Kingsolver and am so enjoying it! First time I’ve ever listened to an entire book!! Would love to try The Marriage Portrait too!!

Maria 1 year ago

I absolutely loved The Marriage Portrait. As you say, such rich text and so atmospheric. I love anything Maggie O’Farrell writes and am so impressed she can write in such varied styles.

Sarah 1 year ago

I read four of the longlisted books and two of those made it onto the shortlist, but I’m not so sure they should have. My favourite was Children of Paradise and I’m devastated that it didn’t make the shortlist… even if it was a bit of an outlier! Great to hear your thoughts and, as always, it has made me more excited to read the books on the shortlist that I have yet to get to.

Michelle 1 year ago

I haven’t read any but would love the opportunity to do so 😀

Marie 1 year ago

Love the article! Adding them all to my TBR. :)

Sophie 1 year ago

I haven’t read any of the shortlist, but I’ve read I’m a Fan and Stone Blind from the longlist (and I’m waiting for a library hold of Cursed Bread!)

Molly 1 year ago

I haven’t read anything from the shortlist yet, but Demon Copperhead and The Marriage Portrait have been on my to read list for a while, and I think I’ll be adding by Trespasses and Black Butterflies! I’m quite intrigued by Pod, I’ve heard very mixed reviews.

Judith 1 year ago

I’ve read stone blind & I’m a fan which I loved! Can’t wait to read the marriage portrait and demon copperhead!

Emily 1 year ago

I haven’t read any yet, sadly. but I’m especially curious for firerush and pod! :-)

Jetske 1 year ago

I haven’t read any yet, but very keen to read The Bandit Queens, The Marriage Portrait and Demon Copperhead.

Jennifer 1 year ago

I’ve currently read 3, Wandering Souls being my favorite so far. I’ll be starting The Bandit Queens today and hopefully Black Butterflies soon after. Side note: so excited for Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit!

Ashley 1 year ago

I haven’t read any yet but keen to read The Marriage Portrait as I loved Hamnet!

Katherine 1 year ago