six expert reviews of the shortlisted books

six expert reviews of the shortlisted books


The Women’s prize for fiction has been championing women writers since it launched in 1996. It is one of the most influential and popular literary prizes in world with writers like Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, among its past winners.

It’s 2024 shortlist is a testament to the diversity of stories being told by women around the world. Here, our academics review the six shortlisted books ahead of the announcement of the winner on June 13.

Brotherless Night by V. V. Ganeshananthan

VV Ganeshanathan and her book Brotherless Night

Sophia Mayrhofer

This is an unforgettable novel of formation – an awakening from tribal loyalties into new possibilities of identity and agency – set in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, during the civil war (1983 to 2009). The protagonist, Sashikala Kulenthiren, is a Tamil teenager, walking apace with her brothers toward medical or engineering degrees, and elaborations of a future peaceful with books, dialogue, and organic living.

When the government atrocities and the call of militancy start disappearing boy after boy from the peninsula, Sashi is reduced to a bit-player of history. She becomes discombobulated by grief for fallen or embattled brothers. However, she finds strength and survives with a women’s collective which agitates, organises and treats hypermasculinity, instead of serving it.

Ganeshananthan anatomises a separatist movement without once glorifying its concerted violence. The book is history-adjacent, the narrator says. It is one in a proliferating series that will counteract unimaginable loss, such as the burning of more than 97,000 volumes in the Tamil library by the Sinhalese police.

Ankhi Mukherjee, professor of English and world literatures

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Anne Enright and her book The Wren, The Wren

Hugh Chaloner

Booker-winner Anne Enright is known for her masterful command of the family saga, particularly in an Ireland reeling from deep shocks like child abuse revelations or the global financial crisis. The Wren, The Wren charts the relationship between mother and daughter Carmel and Nell. The novel’s pacing is derived from the ebbs and flows of their alternately unbearable closeness and mutual, generational alienation.

Enright’s characteristically tender approach to human fallibility is evident throughout, but what is particularly dazzling is her millennial voice. She wades into the world of bad-faith takes on “snowflakes” and a critical tendency to lambast millennial “sad girl novels”, instead giving nuanced treatment to the simultaneous optimism and vulnerability of living now.

Eschewing her previous focus on landmark events in contemporary Ireland, Enright unpicks the feeling of being “held tight [by] some dream we had of mankind getting ahead of its stupid self, of us in particular getting ahead of the too-lateness of our time.”

Orlaith Darling, postdoctoral researcher in contemporary English literature and critical theory

Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville and her book

Darren James

Proving Virginia Woolf correct in that “we think back through our mothers if we are women”, Kate Grenville turns to her grandmother for inspiration in her tenth novel, Restless Dolly Maunder. The biofiction evokes the opportunities and frustrations of a woman born into the late 19th-century “hinge” generation, when a door “started to swing open” that was previously “shut tight”.

Dolly is haunted with a sense of being “made in the wrong way”; her teacher training foreclosed by her father, she finds herself an ambivalent wife and mother, dissatisfied by “the life other women are happy with”.

Her “wanderlust” is a painful force, driving her to continually uproot her family in pursuit of the next business venture. Grenville skilfully remains sympathetic to Dolly without minimising the impact of this itinerant existence on her children.

The novel’s sole weakness is a tendency to recount too much faithful detail at the expense of narrative pace. Grenville’s strength, conversely, is in the depth and nuance of her insight, revealing how the “different world” she inherited from her grandmother came with a darker legacy of intergenerational mistakes.

Bethany Layne, senior lecturer in English literature

Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy

Claire Kilroy and her book Soldier Sailor

Magda Christie

Claire Kilroy’s poignant novel is the story of a mother who finds that child-rearing is a series of tiny battles, most of which she loses.

The mother, Soldier, talks to her son, Sailor, describing intense but ordinary despair at her constant “failures” interspersed by fierce delight in him. She struggles with the irrational impossibility of completing tasks such as getting to a baby and toddler group. This impossibility cannot be conveyed to her husband, who continued his life uninterrupted, occasionally telling her what she is doing wrong or complaining that she has not cooked dinner or ordered milk.

Soldier’s experiences will be achingly familiar to many mothers. These experiences are rarely depicted in literature, and even more rarely depicted with such clarity and beauty. At times I could hardly bear to read. It made me so sad and furious.

It is an extraordinary book.

Fiona Woollard, professor of philosophy

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescure

Aube Rey Lescure and her book River East River West

An Zi

Aube Rey Lescure’s River East, River West tells an intimate story which illustrates the effects that recent Chinese history has had on certain people’s lives. Set in Shanghai and told from two perspectives, the novel begins in 2007 with 14-year-old Alva, awkwardly attending her mother Sloan’s wedding to wealthy businessman Lu Fang, and then switches to the perspective of Lu Fang himself, moving back in time to 1985 when he works as a shipping clerk.

This insightful, poignant novel asks questions about family and loyalty and national identity and the contradictions and complexities of working out who we are and where we come from. It investigates the formative power of memory and loss, which can forge bonds or splinter lives apart.

Hope, in the end, comes in the form of family itself, dysfunctional and flawed though it may be.

Sally O’Reilly, honorary associate in creative writing

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

Isabella Hammad and her book Enter Ghost

Van Loan

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad explores the complicated situations in which Palestinians find themselves in Palestine and Israel. Its title is a reference to stage directions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play which the book’s protagonist Sonia is convinced to take part in while visiting Haifa, Israel.

Sonia is a British-Palestinian but Haifa is where her father grew up and her sister, Haneen, now lives. As Sonia gets to grips with the material on and off the stage, she undergoes a sort of political and personal awakening.

Everything she experiences is sharpened against Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, from the domineering actions of Israeli soldiers to the shattering research into her Palestinian family history during the Nakba of 1948.

If Hamlet is haunted by the death of his father, the Palestinians are also haunted by their history and and the socio-political consequences emanating from it. The play is used to explore the dystopian nature of Israeli control over Palestinian lives, as well as the struggles that underpin people’s lives in Palestine.

Hammad has crafted a complex tale interweaving prose and playwriting to tell an urgent story and bring forward ghosts that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Atef Alshaer, senior lecturer in Arabic literature

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