The male-dominated literary world of the past is slowly being reshaped by a new generation of powerful female voices.
Out of thirteen writers long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, nine are women and eight of the books are debuts. Whilst all of the books are undoubtedly amongst this year’s best, here we celebrate the stories of female writers from the likes of Hilary Mantel and Anne Tyler to newcomers such as Sophie Ward and Avni Doshi.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
Diane Cook is the author of the acclaimed short story collection Man v Nature and a former producer for the radio show This American Life (best known as the creators of the Serial podcast). Her latest novel The New Wilderness is set in a world ravaged by climate change with a poignant mother-daughter relationship at its core.
Bea’s five-year-old daughter Agnes is struggling to survive in the heavily polluted urban environment in which they live. In desperation, Agnes makes the decision to join a group of volunteers in the Wilderness State, a territory previously untouched by mankind. In this vast expanse of unwelcoming and often dangerous land, Bea and Agnes learn to coexist with nature. Timely and insightful, this passionate and bold story contemplates what it means to be human.
This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
At the age of 28, Tsitsi Dangarembga published her first novel Nervous Conditions to immediate critical acclaim. An impassioned, first-person account of a 1960s Rhodesian childhood scarred by the war of independence, the novel introduced the voice of Tambu who now returns in this final instalment of the writer’s trilogy as a middle-aged woman living in a hostel without a husband or children.
Tambu has recently abandoned a prestigious job as a copywriter because she was angry that white colleagues took the credit for her achievements. Her savings are quickly running out and she’s suffering from humiliation and sadness. Written from a distanced second-person perspective, the Booker Prize judges described the novel as a ‘journey to discover where lives go after hope has departed.’
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Avni Doshi’s debut novel Burnt Sugar took her eight years to write. Set in Pune, India, the story follows Antara as she deals with caring for a mother who never cared for her.
Tara was a rebellious young mother who ran away from her middle-class life to join an ashram with a guru who espoused free love and sex. She is now mentally deteriorating but her daughter Antara (of Tara, un-Tara) refuses to let her forget her troubled childhood. Their ‘complex and unusual’ relationship is both compelling and uncomfortable, presenting an unusually in-depth portrayal of motherhood. The story begins, “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.”
The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel
The Mirror & The Light is the last instalment of Hilary Mantel’s much loved trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son from Putney who became Henry VIII’s right-hand man.
The second book, Bring Up the Bodies, was published eight years ago (and won Mantel her second Booker prize), but this novel picks up exactly where we left off in May 1536 in the moment just after Anne Boleyn has been beheaded. It charts Cromwell’s final years across 875 pages, but don’t let the length put you off it, it’s well worth the commitment.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
Maaza Mengiste’s second novel The Shadow King is set in Ethiopia in 1935 with the threat of Mussolini’s army looming. The recently orphaned protagonist Hirut is struggling to adapt to her new life as a maid. Her new employee Kidane is an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army and against his will, she decides to take up arms and defend her country, serving the Shadow King: a peasant impersonating the exiled king of Ethiopia. A captivating exploration of female power, the book pays homage to the women soldiers who were written out of war history through a story of personal struggle for liberation.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a Fun Age is Philadelphia-based writer Kiley Reid’s debut novel and a striking investigation of race, friendship and privilege.
When a young black woman named Emira Tucker, who works as a babysitter for news anchor Peter and lifestyle guru Alix, takes their white toddler, Briar, to an upscale supermarket, she is accused of kidnapping the child by a security guard. The situation is appeased when Emira calls Peter, but she is left furious and humiliated whilst Alix resolves to make it right. The book details the complex relationship between the two women, exposing everyday insidious instances of racism.
Redhead by The Side of The Road by Anne Tyle
Anne Tyler is best known for her tender portrayal of ordinary people’s lives, and Redhead by The Side of The Road is similarly insightful. This slim novel focuses on Micah Mortimer who was once the family star and is now scraping a living running a one-man computer repair business. He’s cautious and systematic in both his domestic and romantic life whilst his family lives in chaos. It’s a quiet and beautiful story about human relationships, written with intent observation, empathy and humour.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
Sophie Ward’s powerful debut novel Love and Other Thought Experiments has been described as “an extremely original, genre-bending novel that melds Anglo-American analytical philosophy with realist social drama and futuristic science fiction”, but more simply put, it is a story about love and loss.
Married couple Rachel and Eliza are considering parenthood. One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and become stuck. As a scientist, Eliza refuses to take Rachel’s fear seriously but for Rachel the experience is real and it hurts. The ant becomes an increasingly looming presence, throwing the very foundations of their relationship into question. Told in ten interconnecting chapters, which alternate between the characters’ perspectives, this novel is a deeply complex and beautifully crafted exploration of relationships and reality.
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Another stunningly original debut, How Much of These Hills is Gold grapples with the legend of the wild west, offering new perspectives on the familiar setting. Its protagonists are two children of Chinese descent who are struggling to survive after the deaths of their impoverished parents. The story begins as a quest to bury their father and extends into an exploration of their family history as they become adolescents. Highly atmospheric and at times unsettling, it is a story about isolation, gender, race, poverty and growing up.