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Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist - what reading groups think

The Women’s Prize for Fiction honours outstanding, ambitious, original fiction written in English by women from anywhere in the world. Since the shortlist was announced in April, reading groups across the UK have been reading, discussing and reviewing the six shortlisted titles. Some of their reviews are shared below.

Is your group reading any of the shortlisted books? Discussion guides are available to download for free to help spark your conversation.

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

The Femminents, a family reading group spanning two generations formed a book club during the first lockdown have been reading How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones.

“We all really enjoyed our allocated book, _How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. We loved the prose, the characters and the empathy with which Cherie Jones tackled the most challenging of subjects. We had a fierce debate about the ending; some of us found it too conveniently happy whereas others felt it was a nod to the myth that gives the book its title and the idealism was therefore deliberate.

We spoke about the legacy of slavery and how it is still being felt today across the world; the impact that it continues to have on young men who feel a sense of hopelessness about their futures, and the way that in turn leads them to perpetuate oppression against the women in their lives.

Grace: “I loved this book. I struggled to describe it to someone however without spoiling any of the plot as so much happens in the first few chapters that’s all completely unexpected. I loved that the structure made it feel less like there was one protagonist, but that there were many. There was time to reflect on each character and develop an opinion on each of them, and crucial details were teased out at the right moments… I’m already recommending this book to friends and would definitely re-read it. I can imagine discovering something new every time.”

Rachel: “I loved this book. It took me to the darkest of places, and back into the light, over and over again. It made me wince, squirm, and grimace in distress in places making the moments of pleasure and light even more joyful to read.”

Sal: “Cherie Jones handles the subjects of trauma, violence and misogyny with great skill. Each of her damaged characters reveals their truth in well placed back stories presented at key points in the narrative. The story is powerful – at times hard to read – but as readers we are witness to its horrors.”

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Reading Women is a reading group set up by two avid fans of the Women’s Prize for Fiction during lockdown who wanted to read all the former prize winners. The group has a wide range of members, including TV producers, an NHS admin worker, a management consultant and more. They read Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.

Maddy: “Haunting and descriptive creation of an alternative world, which I could have kept on exploring! Left me thinking about its lofty halls for weeks afterwards, and how it drip-fed its mysteries to the reader.”

Mark: “Charming and beautifully told, a portrait of a parallel world where the key themes are kidnap, memory lost and regained, wide eyed wonder and radical self reliance. A story that considers the best and worst of human nature and in which curiosity vanquishes.”

Rowan: “I found this book utterly enchanting, and from the moment I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. I was torn between on the one hand desperately trying to unpick its central mystery, and on the other wishing to remain peacefully immersed in Clarke’s beautifully crafted world for as long as possible. Visually and conceptually it is a book that has stayed with me and that I hope to revisit time and time again.”

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Brummie Literary and Custard Society is a group of friends who love meeting to talk about books and like being challenged to read things they wouldn’t normally read! The group includes teachers, a nurse and a actor. They have been reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

“We all gave it a score of 9 or higher out of 10. As is typical when we hit upon a book which we’ve all enjoyed, our discussion was enthusiastic, building on each others’ comments and there was little disagreement. Without giving too much away, there was a typical slight disagreement about the ending, as we have different preferences in terms of everything being tied up neatly!”

Jenny: “The Vanishing Half’ gave me characters I loved, lots to think about and hours of entertainment – especially enjoyed as I took it away to North Wales on my first mini holiday of 2021 after a pretty challenging start to the year. It led to a brilliant in-person, non-zoom book group discussion which left me eager to read the rest of the shortlist as well as Bennett’s first book, ‘Mothers’. I’ve already given ’The Vanishing Half’ as a birthday gift twice!”

Jo: “It is very easy to get lost in “The Vanishing Half”; the book has a flow and rhythm to it which makes it easy to gobble up in just a few greedy sittings. However, the ease with which one reads this book should not mean it should be dismissed as an “easy read”. Rather, this novel has a depth and a complexity to it which meant that our Book Group discussion started in bright sunshine and ended in the shivering dark, so much did we find to talk about.”

Liz: “The story of Stella and Desiree does what good art should do – it explores those larger philosophical concepts such as identity, loss, race and belonging whilst rooting them in characters and places that the reader can feel with. This is not a conceptual book, though it deals with many. You see yourself in Desiree’s longing to escape the confines of the town she grew up in, you understand the dogged determination of Jude to uncover more about the secrets of her family, you become embroiled in Stella’s valid paranoia, you are drawn to and repelled by a mother who does what she has learned she must to survive and a mother whose sense of self disappears in fits and starts. The beauty of this book is that it engages you in the mess of real life, real history and its lasting effects. It makes you put yourself in the shoes of others without saying you will understand everything in the wearing of them. It is at once alien and familiar with moments that truly touch something visceral within. Bennett asks some of the most pertinent questions and articulates some of the most elusive conundrums of being the ‘other’ without ever telling you what to think. An intricate, thoughtful good old fashioned story that continues to provide food for thought long after the last page is done.”

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Brixton Book Group is open to anyon, both in-person and online. They enjoy reading a range of book and welcome all genres. The group is a space for the members to come together and discuss books and life, which has been particularly important for lots of members over the past year. They have been reading Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.

“We all enjoyed it but to different degrees! We liked the characters and the themes covered, and found it very readable. Quite a few of us weren’t completely happy with the ending, as it felt a little too neat – but some liked that, given the complexity and nuance elsewhere in the book.
We also differed a little in whether we felt the shortness of the chapters were a good thing or not – for some this made the book an easy read and feel like it covered a lot of ground quickly, but it also meant there wasn’t as much depth and some felt the book wouldn’t stay with them/wasn’t as memorable because of this.”

“We had an interesting discussion about faith, and the way in which Gifty didn’t fit into a single box in terms of her relationship with religion. We also discussed the way in which the book reflected the immigrant experience: the challenges and unhappiest that Gifty’s mother had to face coming to a different country, and the shame she felt over Nana’s death, but not choosing/being able to return to Ghana for support from her family. We talked about how in some ways Gifty having a successful career in science and being very academically hard working may be seen as stereotypical of a first generation immigrant, but she was clear that this wasn’t a case of a pushy mother, she was motivated for other reasons.”

Rachel: “I enjoyed reading Transcendent Kingdom,my expectations were high following Homegoing and Gyasi didn’t disappoint. She is so skilled with her character development and moving between time and place without jarring the reader. Like others I found some of the science sections to be interesting but not necessarily fitting with the flow of the rest of the narrative.”

Erin: “I loved this book and found it to provide a powerful narrative involving what it is like to cope with grief and anger in the context of a loved one. I found her relationship with her career in terms of how she related to her brother and mother a little too neat – perhaps Gifty is just very self aware, however I thought it was interesting that she would deliberately follow that path following her grief from the loss of her brother. I felt the loss of her father to his home country was represented with sufficient emotion. I hated the ending – I expected more out of Gifty than to simply marry off, as it felt. I paused while reading this due to feeling so invested with the characters and wanting the story to continue on and on.”

Ines: “I really enjoyed the book. I really liked the writing style and could hardly put the book down, wanting to find out all about Gifty’s and her family’s story. I think Gyasi managed to very well outline the family relationships and to bring across complex emotions that made the reader understand and feel for the characters. I also liked the science element as I think it is something that only rarely makes it way into non-fiction books. The book also was thought provoking about the immigration experience and faith.”

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

The Candid Book Club is a group of five friends who have a shared love of reading and promote diversity in reading on Instagram and Twitter. They have been following the Women’s Prize for Fiction for several years and the longlist has always influenced their reading choices. They have been reading Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller.

“We all thoroughly enjoyed Unsettled Ground. It was a very unique story and we did not foresee the ending. The differences in opinion were based around the twins’ mother, the relationship with her children and what her motivations were.”

“Rural living and poverty in the UK were a big part of our discussion. But also what role could the authorities have played in looking out for these people? Underlying mental health issues especially Jeannie’s “condition” plus the coercive nature of their mum’s relationship with them.”

Mimi: “There is so much to this book, sibling relationships, parental trust, the concept of home and as the story goes on, abuse. This is a smartly written novel with vibrant imagery (I could totally see the cottage) and engaging, rich characters. It really challenges what a family unit looks like and how trust builds and is then destroyed.”

Jess: “This book has crept its way into my brain as an absolutely underrated smash. The story of twins Jeanie and Julius is one I’ve been thinking about long after I finished reading the book… What genre is this book? I couldn’t tell you, but it’s got mystery, suspense, intrigue, psychological elements, maybe crime vibes? But it is an important story about a side of society we rarely see or talk about. Those rural isolated communities and families in the UK who live off the grid and who the authorities have long forgotten. Not part of the fabric of their local network and living in almost if not total poverty. Claire Fuller depicts their lives with such excellent and vivid writing, you can see and hear and smell everything through her words; believe me there’s a lot to smell in a certain caravan!”

Omma & Tanya: “This is not a book we would have ever picked up had it not been for The Reading Agency, but when we read the description it stood out and intrigued us both in equal measure.
As sisters, we focussed on the sibling relationship and dynamic between Jeanie and Julius which were so wonderfully described by Claire Fuller but so weird too.
We found Julius to be so selfish and Jeanie so helpless but what really stood out to us, was the way money was handled and valued in the novel. When Jeanie is down to her last few quid which she has no choice but to stretch for several days and shopping trips, that’s when it hit home that the life these twins live, is just unimaginable in this day and age. We urge you all to read it and find out about a corner of society that is definitely overlooked.”

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

BooksNotBoys is a group of women in their mid-twenties from across the UK from a wide range of differing backgrounds, including teachers, health workers, social workers and new graduates. They are passionate about reading contemporary books that celebrate diversity amongst women and champion authors from under-represented backgrounds. They have been reading No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is a book which takes Twitter to a new and dystopian level as a novel. Challenging the novel form, the effort required to read the book pays off as an interesting if a little too clever for its own worth exploration of the future of social media.”

“The book led us into a fascinating discussion about the novel’s form and what we would describe it as (poetry? Twitter feed?). Our previous discussions as a group had not looked as closely as this at form and engagement with respect to the books we have read. As a group of young readers our discussion about social media, brought about by reading the book, was illuminating – by way of example, readers in the group who leave their phone in another room so that they can read books, readers who described feeling old as a result of reading the book because they grew up with social media but no longer engage with it. I think it is fair to say that as a group we felt uniquely qualified to review the book because we are all young and have therefore grown up with social media with all that that means. By way of example: one member commented that the book ‘Cut through the cringe worthiness of talking about social media.”

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