For the past seven years I’ve read the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlists, and it always gives us the excuse to pick up a well-known title we’ve been meaning to get to, from Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, as well as nudging us in the direction of lesser-known books, too.

This year, I’d read most of the longlisted books in advance of the shortlist announcement, and a few of my favourites didn’t make the cut, so before I review this year’s six shortlisted titles, I’d like to pause to applaud my top picks from this year’s prize.

This One Sky Day by Leone Ross is a novel for those who like to bathe themselves in rich language and magical realism. The archipelago world Ross has created glides off the page to dance around your head: a man who can flavour food with his hands; women who like to eat butterflies. It’s a heart-breaking treat.

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé is a chorus-like fable, giving voices to those whose stories have been silenced. Steeped in Egyptian mythology, I’d recommend it for fans of Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death. Finally, Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith is the most impressive debut novel I’ve read in quite some time. Ambitious in its scope, it covers two timelines, and two missing women in Vietnam, again full of folklore, this time with a sprinkling of horror.

Now to the six shortlisted books, and let’s work up to my favourites. The title I enjoyed least from this year’s shortlist is The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. Sometimes you read a book, recognise it’s not for you, but can clearly see how other people will adore it. This is one of those times. Shafak’s novel is about Ada, a teenager who has recently lost her mother, and is trying to understand the roots of her parents’ relationship, embedded in 1970s Cyprus. This is illustrated via Greek mythology and a talking fig tree, which felt a little too on-the-nose for me at times, and the tone a bit too earnest. 

The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini is about Alethea Lopez, who has just turned 40 and lives in Port of Spain in Trinidad. She’s trying to decide what she wants to do with her life, and when people from her childhood collide with her present-day abusive marriage, she has to dig deep to process memories and dust off her own agency. This book has a brilliant lyrical quality to it, though I found the plot to be rather predictable in places.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich feels like it contains a bookshop. Not just because it’s set in one (based on the author’s own real-life bookshop) but because of the number of tales it strings together. This is a novel about the power of stories. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of films about filmmaking that get nominated for Oscars; books about books tend to do well in literary prizes, too — it’s not the only one on this shortlist — and that’s understandable; we’re here because we love books, after all. The Sentence is a ghost story, a crime novel, a tale of found family, indigenous history, and the pandemic. It’s definitely a patchwork, and I loved some parts of it more than others.

The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki shares many similarities with The Island of Missing Trees, in that it’s about the death of a parent, migration, and it also contains a talking object. This time the surprise narrator is a book, and like with The Sentence this is a novel discussing the power of stories and who gets to tell them. With references to Borges’s Library of Babel and Pullman’s His Dark Materials, there are many philosophical and meta points to discuss and lose yourself in, as well as thought-provoking yet whimsical discussions of religion, climate change, and capitalism. Having read all of Ozeki’s work, I can safely say this is a very her book, so if you’ve enjoyed her previous titles, such as A Tale for the Time Being, I think you’ll enjoy a lot of what this has to offer.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is a book I could sink into, thoroughly trusting the author to take me from chapter to chapter. It’s a well-crafted story of marriage and mental illness. Whilst I enjoyed the reading experience of this very much, and I’d recommend the audiobook narrated by Emilia Fox, too, I think I probably would have loved it more if I hadn’t already read The Paper Palace by Miranda Crowley Heller and The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson, both of which were also longlisted for this year’s prize, and both of which also share similarities with Sorrow and Bliss in terms of family dynamics and tone. This, of course, is not a criticism of Sorrow and Bliss, but I always find it interesting to think about how the time and place in which we greet books alters our experience of what they have to offer.

My favourite book from this year’s shortlist is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. It’s one of those rare finds that fulfils so much of what I want in a book as an adult, and touches on childhood bookish joy, too. Perhaps because it’s a novel about chasing the ambitions of your younger self, but I was strongly reminded of Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, specifically the character of Petrova. 

The words “epic” and “cinematic” are thrown around a lot, but this is a novel that more than deserves them. We follow the lives of Marian Graves, a woman in the early decades of the 20th century who wants to explore the world, and Hadley Baxter, an actress who is playing Marian in a Hollywood film many decades later. It examines the performative nature of self, memory and gender, and the longing to get away to some idealised version of both ourselves, and of the world — one that must exist, surely, somewhere just over the horizon.

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on June 15. Leave a comment below telling us which titles you’re most interested in, for the chance to win a copy of all six shortlisted books.

Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written ten books for children and adults, the latest of which is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.

Images courtesy of Jen Campbell. 

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87 comments

I can’t wait to read Great Circle and of course Ruth Ozeki’s award winner. Truthfully I would love to read all of them! How generous for Toast to host the giveaway!

Linda 8 days ago

I really want to read Great Circle! Also more intrigued by The Book of Form and Emptiness now.

Demi 18 days ago

You’ve sold me on The Great Circle but I’m still interested in The Island of Missing Trees too as I’ve heard a lot of people in my online book group talk about the book a lot!

Fran 18 days ago

I would love to read Great Circle based on Jen’s recommendation and that Ballet Shoes is one of my favourite books! Will be adding to my TBR

Gwynne 19 days ago

Absolutely loved sorrow and bliss and great circle but would’ve loved for paper palace to win even though it didn’t make it to the shortlist xx

Tess 19 days ago

I’d love to read Build a House Around My Body, Great Circle (I trust Jen’s tastes blindly) and Ruth Ozeki’s winning book!

Eliza 19 days ago

Lovely article from the wonderful Jen! Desperate to pick up any and all of these books but The Sentence intrigues me – I’m always eager for some bookshop escapism!

Sophie 19 days ago

I think one sky day has to be the one I’m most looking forward to reading, though I must confess I was originally drawn to it because of the stunning cover!

Lauren 19 days ago

I’m most looking forward to Creatures of Passage. I think it sounds so original and interesting!

Jane 19 days ago

I’m most interested in the Elif Shafak and Mason novels. Both authors I have never read before.

Jordan 19 days ago

So intrigued by these wonderful books. ‘Great Circle’ is definitely next on my TBR. Thanks for a great article, Jen!

Verity 19 days ago

It’s surprising to me that I haven’t read any of these books yet! I’ve read a number of other books by Louise Erdrich (I loved The Night Watchman), so I’m looking forward to reading The Sentence. But all the books sound good. I’ll try to read them all.

Elizabeth 19 days ago

Having read A Tale for The Time Being, and very much enjoying it, I think I am most interested in Ruth Ozeki’s book. I have already read Sorrow and Bliss, and though I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, it has not lasted in my memory and imagination, which is a shame. I did think it was wonderfully funny, and a very astute rendering of mental illness.

Anna 19 days ago

Sorrow and Bliss ,Great Circle really all the books🥰📚

Rhonda 19 days ago

I am not as excited about the short list as other years, but I want to read Great Circle for sure! I also think it has solid chances of winning the Prize

Sara 19 days ago

I truly can’t wait to read Build Your House Around My Body – especially because I haven’t read any books by Vietnamese Authors yet and a magical realism/folklore/horror book sounds like I would definitely enjoy it a lot. For the short listed books I would love to get to the Island Of Missing Trees (the talking fig tree very much intrigues me) but also The Great Circle, as I love books about finding yourself – away from all the outer expectations and the glitter and glamour. And Jen’s review really makes me wanna read it right away!

Viktoria 26 days ago

I enjoyed Salt Lick, which didn’t make the shortlist. I think Jen mentioned she did not finished it on her YouTube channel. It reminded me of Station Eleven. I’m keen to get to Great Circle.

Tracey 26 days ago

I love the variety on the shortlist this year! I think I’m most interested in reading the Great Circle.

Rachael 26 days ago

I’ve seen several Booktubers talk about this year’s long and short list and the one book that intrigues me the most is Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith.

Maria 26 days ago

So interested in the listed books this year, I loved how diverse they were and unexpected! I’ve not read anything by Elif Shafak yet and the island of missing trees sounds right up my alley. Really intrigued by the sentence because I’ve seen very mixed reviews about it, which somehow always sells a book to me more than nothing but rave reviews. I’m currently reading a tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki and absolutely adoring it so I can’t wait to get stuck in with the book of form and emptiness too – I just want to savour every sentence, she is such a beautiful writer.

Chloe 27 days ago

It’s been a while since I read literary fiction but there are several titles on this list that make me want to dive back in. Especially because of my previous encounters with these authors and how different these books sound to those. I wonder if I’d agree with Jen.

Noa 27 days ago

I was so intrigued by the majority of the longlisted books, but somehow I haven’t managed to get around to reading any of them (though I’m in the queue for a couple at my library now). I think the only shortlisted book that doesn’t immediately make me sit up and bark is Sorrow and Bliss – just not my type of story – but I’ve heard great things about it all the same, and I will give it a shot along with all the others. A good solid longlist and shortlist this year. Thanks for these concise, gem-like little reviews, Jen!

Catherine 27 days ago

This is such a wonderful article! Jen has such a fabulous way of describing books. I am excited by lots of the suggestions but (like lots of the other commenters!) think I’ll start with Great Circle

Rachel 27 days ago

Hi great discriptions of the books makes me want to read all of them I’ve just got sorrow and bliss and can’t wait to read it! Great woman’s prize fiction books.

Julie 27 days ago

Hi great discriptions of the books makes me want to read all of them I’ve just got sorrow and bliss and can’t wait to read it! Great woman’s prize fiction books.

Julie 27 days ago