Women's Prize for Fiction 2020: Winner Announcement & Concluding Thoughts

Remember the Women’s Prize for Fiction?! So much time has passed since the longlist announcement back in March that the prize hasn’t been on my mind as much in the past couple months. But the winner was announced today, and it is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell! While I hadn’t been rooting for Hamnet to win, I can appreciate that it is a gorgeously written and thoughtful work of historical fiction. You can read my full review of Hamnet here, but the tl;dr of it is that, while beautifully written and quite moving at times, the book spends over 200 pages leading up to an event that the reader already knows is going to happen (based on the synopsis). For other takes on Hamnet, check out Callum, Emily, Naty, Beth, Rachel, and Fatma’s reviews!

The book that I was rooting for to win was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I became a (slightly) harsher reviewer after reading it, because Girl, Woman, Other showed me that one book really can do it all: profound social commentary that feels completely organic in the context of the story, excellent characters, beautifully poetic writing, and a fresh premise. Even though a couple of the stories in the collection weren’t as compelling as the rest, I was astounded by the book as a whole. I also would have loved to see Evaristo, and her alone, take the prize after having to share the 2019 Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.

I also would have been very happy to see How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee win the prize, but unfortunately it didn’t even make the shortlist (I have already ranted about this once, and won’t rehash that again here). Despite being such a powerful and evocative novel, How We Disappeared has NOT gotten the attention it deserves! On Goodreads, How We Disappeared has 2,748 ratings and 475 reviews, compared to Hamnet’s 9,042 ratings and 1,547 reviews. Winning the Women’s Prize could have brought so much well-deserved attention to Jing-Jing Lee and How We Disappeared.

Looking back on my experience reading through the Women’s Prize longlist this year, I have to say that it was a bit disappointing. I made the decision to read the list in (almost) its entirety this year, because of how much I loved the WP books I read last year. Last year, I read eight books from the WP longlist, and gave them an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. This year, I read thirteen longlisted books, and rated them 3.7 stars out of 5, on average. Obviously, I can’t make statistically meaningful comparisons here, and I know that 3.7 stars out of 5 isn’t that bad. But 1) I am the type of reader who rates most books as 4 stars out of 5, and 2) I just didn’t have that deep connection with many of the books on this year’s longlist, even ones that I thought were well-written.

Part of my problem with this year’s longlist might have been the huge thematic focus on motherhood. While I’m not actively opposed to books about motherhood, I’m also not really interested in reading a dozen books about motherhood in the span of three months. I wonder why the judges centered the longlist around this theme, when surely they recognize that women have so much to contribute to the world besides motherhood? I also wonder what WP-eligible books were omitted from the longlist because they didn’t fit the theme?

Other themes that came up throughout the longlist were family sagas and family secrets; mental health, trauma, and grief; reimaginations and retellings of history; and “rich people problems.” I was particularly surprised that the longlist included three “rich people problems” novels, especially when only one of those novels (Fleishman is in Trouble) offered any type of meaningful social commentary.

I’m getting a bit ranty here, so I want to make sure that I also acknowledge the positives that came out of reading this year’s WP longlist. The best thing was connecting with other bloggers. I loved having reading buddies to exchange opinions and (especially in the case of Dominicana and The Most Fun We Ever Had) commiserate with! Also, I did rate quite a few books as 4-stars or higher. I most likely wouldn’t have read all of these books – especially Weather, Red at the Bone, How We Disappeared, and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line – if it weren’t for the Women’s Prize.

tl;dr Although I was rooting for Girl, Woman, Other, I’m not mad about Hamnet winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I was a bit disappointed with the longlist on the whole, but loved connecting with other book bloggers over the Women’s Prize, and ended up reading some great novels that I otherwise might not have. I will most likely do it again next year 🙂

my Rankings of the wp-longlisted books

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 5 stars out of 5
  2. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4.5 stars out of 5
  3. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars out of 5
  4. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars out of 5
  5. Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams – 4 stars out of 5
  6. Weather by Jenny Offill – 4 stars out of 5
  7. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars out of 5
  8. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 3.5 stars out of 5
  9. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3.5 stars out of 5
  10. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 3.5 stars out of 5
  11. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars out of 5
  12. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars out of 5
  13. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 2 stars out of 5
  14. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – didn’t read (because I read many negative reviews that made me suspect I would dislike this book)
  15. Girl by Edna O’Brien – didn’t read (because it sounds like trauma porn, and also if I want to read about Boko Haram I’ll read something by an ownvoices author)
  16. The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel – didn’t read (because I didn’t have the motivation to start the Wolf Hall series this summer)

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.