Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021: Two sets of twins among the pearls on shortlist

Two debuts and three second novels are in the running for £30,000 award

The shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

Two sets of twins are among the pearls on this year’s shortlist for the £30,000 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is the story of two black twins in the US, one of whom leaves her past behind to pass as white, and what happens when their daughters’ paths cross. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the tale of 50-year-old twins who still live with their mum, and what happens to them when she dies unexpectedly.

The shortlist also features a pair of fiction debuts: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood – best-known for her memoir, Priestdaddy – about a social media star confronted with reality in the shape of a family crisis, and How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones, the story of three marriages, and the underside of the author’s native Barbados, a beautiful island paradise.

Susanna Clarke and Yaa Gyasi, like Bennett, are shortlisted for their second novels. All six are shortlisted for the first time.


Clarke’s 2005 debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a huge bestseller and her follow-up Paranesi, another work of fantasy, was long-awaited. “Piranesi is a book that is utterly transporting,” said judge Nesrine Malik. “It spirits you away into a fascinating universe that stays with you long after you’ve put the book down.”

Gyasi’s debut Homecoming won several awards. The author was born in Ghana and raised in Alabama. The parents of her protagonist Gifty make the same journey, but myths of heroism and romance succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life. “Transcendent Kingdom had me in tears, wailing,” said judgeVick Hope, “the most emotional I felt after reading a book for a long, long time.”

Bernardine Evaristo, chair of the judges and Booker Prize winning novelist, said: “Coming up with a longlist of 16 books for this prize was relatively easy compared to whittling the selection down to six novels, which by necessity demands more consensus. Sadly, we had to lose so many exceptional books that we loved. However, with this shortlist, we are excited to present a gloriously varied and thematically rich exploration of women’s fiction at its finest.

“These novels will take the reader from a rural Britain left behind to the underbelly of a community in Barbados; from inside the hectic performance of social media to inside a family beset by addiction and oppression; from a tale of racial hierarchy in America to a mind-expanding tale of altered perceptions.

“Fiction by women defies easy categorisation or stereotyping, and all of these novels grapple with society’s big issues expressed through thrilling storytelling. We feel passionate about them, and we hope readers do too.”

Evaristo’s fellow judges are writers Elizabeth Day, Vick Hope and Nesrine Malik; and broadcaster Sarah-Jane Mee. The winner will be announced on September 8th.


Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half
By Brit Bennett (Dialogue Books)

Irish Times review
Bernardine Evaristo: "The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a beautifully written novel, and psychologically very complex, and it looks into the consequences of racism and its effect on the human psyche, and how it can determine people's lifestyle choices and relationships and shape their fate."

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age 16, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Born and raised in Southern California, Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her first novel, The Mothers, was published in 2016. She lives in Los Angeles.

By Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
Irish Times review

Nesrine Malik: "Piranesi by Susanna Clark is a book that is utterly transporting. It spirits you away into a fascinating universe that stays with you long after you've put the book down."

Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has. In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides which thunder up staircases, the clouds which move in slow procession through the upper halls. Twice a week Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food and water lilies to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want?

Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was published in more than 34 countries and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Guardian First Book Award. It won the British Book Awards Newcomer of the Year, the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award. She is also the author of The Ladies of Grace Adieu, a collection of short stories, some set in the world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. She lives in Derbyshire.

Unsettled Ground
By Claire Fuller (Fig Tree)

Sarah-Jane Mee: "Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller tells the tale of 50-year-old twins who still live with their mum, and what happens to them when she dies unexpectedly."

Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different. They still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Their rented cottage is simultaneously their armour against the world and their sanctuary. Inside its walls they make music, in its garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance. But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down.

Fuller was born in Oxfordshire in 1967. She gained a degree in sculpture from Winchester School of Art, but went on to have a long career in marketing and didn’t start writing until she was 40. She has written three previous novels: Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize; Swimming Lessons, which was shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award; and Bitter Orange. She has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester and lives in Hampshire.

Transcendent Kingdom
By Yaa Gyasi (Viking)

Vick Hope: "Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom had me in tears, wailing! [It's] the most emotional I felt after reading a book for a long, long time."

As a child Gifty would ask her parents to tell the story of their journey from Ghana to Alabama, seeking escape in myths of heroism and romance. When her father and brother succumb to the hard reality of immigrant life in the American South, their family of four becomes two – and the life Gifty dreamed of slips away. Years later, desperate to understand the opioid addiction that destroyed her brother’s life, she turns to science for answers. But when her mother comes to stay, Gifty soon learns that the roots of their tangled traumas reach farther than she ever thought.

Gyasi was born in Mampong, Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her first novel, Homegoing, was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. In 2017 Yaa Gyasi was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists and in 2019 the BBC selected her debut as one of the 100 Novels that Shaped Our World. She lives in Berkeley, California.

How the One-armed Sister Sweeps Her House
By Cherie Jones (Tinder Press)

Elizabeth Day: "How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones is a tale of violence, loss and love in Barbados, seen through four very vivid voices."

In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House is the story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.

Jones is a lawyer in Barbados. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 1999. She then studied creative writing at Sheffield Hallam in 2015. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is her first novel.

No One Is Talking About This
By Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus)
Irish Times review

Nesrine Malik: "No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is a book that does its own thing. It takes risks while maintaining warmth, being very moving and profoundly insightful into human nature."

A woman known for her viral social media posts travels the world speaking to her adoring fans. Suddenly, two texts from her mother pierce the fray: ‘Something has gone wrong’ and ‘How soon can you get here?’ The woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.

Lockwood was born in a trailer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and raised in all the worst cities of the Midwest. She is the author of two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and the memoir Priestdaddy. She lives in Savannah, Georgia.