The Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner 2018

Last night The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 was awarded to Kamila Shamsie for the brilliant Home Fire. The judges referred to the book as ‘a novel of our time’ and I’d agree that Shamsie’s retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone is a compelling update exploring issues around immigration, assimilation and terrorism. I read it in one sitting; my review is here.

There was some number crunching with regards to The Women’s Prize on The Bookseller yesterday. The article looked at the trends in terms of previous winners. In the 23 years of the prize, Kamila Shamsie is only the fourth woman of colour to win the award and the first since 2007. What’s most interesting about the three previous winners is that they’ve gone on to be three of the top four biggest sellers (see snippet below); I’d be delighted to see Shamsie go on to join them.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Winner

For the second time in four years, our shadow panel winner is a book that didn’t make the official shortlist. Elmet is a superb novel about outsiders looking at class, power, violence, gender and sexuality. I hope, considering the number of prizes the book has now been listed for, it has a wide readership.

The shadow panel discussions this year were the most intense we’ve ever had. There were some very strong feelings about some of the books and we had quite a discussion about what constitutes fiction.

The book that came a close second for us was Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which shares some similarities with Elmet in terms of its themes but is also a book about race and time and how the America of today can’t be disconnected from its history. Again, I hope it has a wide readership.

The official winner of The Women’s Prize for Fiction is announced tonight. There’s coverage on The Women’s Prize’s social media channels from 6.45pm.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Shortlist

The Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced very early this morning on BBC Radio 4 after the list was leaked. On it are three debut novels, although only The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a first book. Elif Batuman previously published a non-fiction book The Possessed and Jessie Greengrass published an excellent short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk According to One Who Saw It, which won The Edge Hill Prize and was shortlisted for Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer Award (winning the shadow panel prize for which I was a judge).

Those of you who read the blog regularly will know that I am a huge fan of Meena Kandasamy and her second novel When I Hit You in particular. It was my book of the year last year and my favourite to win the prize.

The more established novelists who complete the shortlist are Kamila Shamsie for Home Fire and Jesmyn Ward for Sing, Unburied, Sing which has already taken the National Book Award in the USA. I loved Home Fire, it’s gripping, nuanced and utterly relevant. Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautifully told and completely heart-breaking. I sobbed through the last three chapters.

The list shares four titles with our shadow panel shortlist and four with my own personal list. The title missing that the shadow panel and I expected to see is Elmet. I hope it’s inclusion on a number of prize lists in the past few months means that people do read it.

The winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 will be announced on June 6th.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 Shadow Panel Shortlist

With the official Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist due today, here’s the books the shadow panel felt should make the shortlist.

I’ve reviewed three so far, if you click on the covers of Elmet, A Boy in Winter and Home Fire it will take you to my reviews. The rest are on their way!

This is the fourth year I’ve run a panel and it was our most varied discussion yet. We’ve never had such a wide range of opinions on the same set of books, which mirrors both the range and quality of the longlist. We also discovered that some of us fundamentally disagree on what constitutes fiction and what its job should be. That introduced an interesting element to our conversation!

We’re looking forward to seeing what makes the official shortlist. Apparently the announcement is happening this morning on BBC Radio 4…

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

‘You know what fathers and sons are like.’

‘Not really, no.’

‘They’re our guides into manhood, for starters […] We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.’

Home Fire begins from the perspective of one of the women. Isma is about to miss her flight to America where she has a place to do a PhD in sociology at Amherst. She’s been detained by immigration in the UK who search and interrogate her. ‘He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.’ Eventually she’s allowed to leave but not before she’s missed her flight.

Eventually Isma arrives in Massachusetts where she meets Eamonn Lone, son of the British politician Karamat Lone. Isma recognises Eamonn. When she was younger there was a photograph of the local cricket team in the house of a family friend. Karamat Lone was on it. Isma overheard her grandmother telling someone of the cruelty he’d shown their family when he could’ve acted otherwise. However, Isma doesn’t reveal to Eamonn that she knows who he is and a relationship begins to develop between them.

Isma’s family situation is complicated. Her mother and grandmother died within a year, leaving her to parent her twelve-year-old twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. Aneeka is at home in London, attending college. Parvaiz has left, occasionally letting Aneeka know via Skype messages that he’s okay.

Shamsie intertwines the two families in order to explore relationships, love and loyalty. Through the range of characters, she creates a complex view of what it means to be a Muslim, exploring different perspectives within Muslim communities. This is at its most stark with Karamat Lone and Aneeka. Lone is known as Lone Wolf due to his championing by the tabloids who see him ‘as a lone crusader taking on the backwardness of British Muslims’. Not long after his appointment as Home Secretary, he returns to the secondary school he attended in Bradford to give a speech.

‘You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it.’

Aneeka wears the hijab, prays and is teetotal. She’s also about to enter Lone’s life and have a profound effect.

Home Fire is a retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone. While a number of recent retellings of Greek and Shakespearean plays have fallen short, Shamsie pulls this one off with aplomb. The novel uses the key themes and follows the structure of the source play but its characters, settings and ideas are contemporary and highly relevant. As the story moves from character to character – Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Anneka, Karamat – the sense of urgency builds. Home Fire is a compelling, tightly crafted novel; I read it in one sitting.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

‘There’s a trick to time […] You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or longer,’ he says.

The Trick to Time begins in the present day in a southern seaside town. Mona, nearing 60, runs a shop from which she paints, dresses and sells collectible dolls. Before the end of the first chapter it becomes clear that some of these dolls serve a particular purpose. A woman arrives with a carefully wrapped parcel; she’s grieving:

‘I’ll tell you what, let me give you this.’ Mona takes a business card from the counter and writes her address on the back. ‘That’s me. Shall we say next Wednesday at 4.00 p.m.? Would that suit you?’ The woman nods and Mona smiles. ‘I just need the weight.’

The woman’s voice is a whisper when she speaks. ‘Five pounds seven ounces,’ she says and looks around as though she’s told a secret.

The dolls Mona paints and dresses are made by a local carpenter. She collects them from his workshop every few days. Their conversations suggest they have a working relationship but Mona’s observations show she worries about him too. He lives alone in the workshop and is haphazard at taking care of himself.

Alongside the now, de Waal contracts time and tells the story of Mona’s youth and young adulthood. In these sections of the novel we see her grow up in a small Irish town, raised by her father after her mum dies of cancer. In 1972, she leaves for Birmingham and meets William who, after a short courtship, she marries.

The Trick to Time considers the impact events that happen when we are younger have on our lives as we get older; how our desires and youthful optimism can be eroded, and how we can either weave these events into a new version of life or allow them to dominate it. This is exemplified by two of the minor characters, Karl and Bridie, as well as Mona.

Karl, who Mona spots looking out of his flat window at 5 a.m., is grief stricken after his friend Andreas’ death. Mona begins dating him after they bump into each other in a café; he becomes a catalyst for change in her.

Bridie lives in the village near Mona and her father. They visit her every month.

‘Why doesn’t she visit us instead?’ asks Mona. She is fourteen.

‘Good question,’ her father replies as though he’d never thought of it before.

‘At least then I could do some mending or shell the peas while she has the clock stopped.’

Her father laughs and squeezes her arm in close. ‘Ah, she’s a conjuror all right is Bridie O’Connor. I’ve never known a longer hour. But.’

And his ‘but’ says everything. Mona knows the words that come after. But she’s family, sort of, and she loves you. But she’s lonely. But she lives alone. But it’s the right thing to do. But we have to think of more people than ourselves alone. But have a heart, Mona.

In her debut novel My Name Is Leon, de Waal examined the difficulties of working class, single motherhood and the care system for children of colour with diligence and without descending into sentimentality. In The Trick to Time she applies the same focus to grief, compelling the reader to invest in these characters and their lives, taking us to the dark places which have shaped who they’ve become. There are points where the novel is difficult to read but it isn’t without hope; sometimes the control of time is ours.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan

When Anna Kerrigan is eleven her father, Eddie, takes her on a visit to see Dexter Styles. Anna plays on the Styles’ private beach with Dexter’s daughter as a conversation takes place between the two men.

Eddie is a ‘bagman’, someone who carries bags between men who shouldn’t be seen associating.

The ideal bagman was unaffiliated with either side, neutral in dress and deportment, and able to rid these exchanges of the underhanded feeling they naturally had. Eddie Kerrigan was that man. He looked comfortable everywhere – racetracks, dance halls, theatres, Holy Name Society meetings. He’d a pleasant face, a neutral American accent, and plenty of practice at moving between worlds.

Eddie’s involvement with Dexter Styles has come about because of his other daughter, Anna’s sister, Lydia. Lydia is severely disabled and is cared for by her mother. She needs a special chair in order to be able to sit up. Working for Styles would allow Eddie to pay for this and feel as though he’s contributing to his daughter’s life. He doesn’t know how to behave with her preferring ‘to assume Lydia couldn’t think or feel except as an animal did, attending to its own survival’.

After a 40-page set-up, Egan jumps forward eight years. World War II is in progress. Anna is 19 and is working on the docks in Brooklyn, inspecting parts for battleships. Her father has disappeared five years earlier, leaving the apartment ‘as he would have on any day’ and never returning. Anna and her mother care for Lydia.

Anna befriends Nell, another young woman working at the naval yard. It’s Nell who convinces her to go to a nightclub where she’ll meet Dexter Styles for the first time since the day she went to his house. This allows Egan to follow Styles and show us around his world. It also gives Anna an opportunity to try and discover what happened to her father. While this is building, Anna discovers that divers work in the yard and she decides it’s something she wants to do. Men are leaving for active service every week, she assumes that at some point they’ll have to allow a woman to dive.

With Manhattan Beach Egan creates an engaging tale of a woman forging a path through a very male world. This is true both of Anna’s attempts to become a diver and the relationship that develops between her and Styles. It’s a very different type of book to A Visit from the Goon Squad, more of a conventional historical narrative. It loses something in the length of the novel: there are sections where we discover what happened to Anna’s father that could’ve been cut, and in some sections Egan’s research into the docks and the role of the divers threatens to overwhelm the story. However, where Egan does delight is in the trajectories of the characters. At an event for Manchester Literature Festival last year, she talked about mapping out all the possible decisions a character could make to ensure she chose the least likely. This could be disastrous in someone else’s hands but Egan lays the threads that not only make these twists and turns plausible but also entirely believable.

Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

Selin arrives at Harvard to begin her university education as the internet is becoming more widely used. One of the first things she’s given is an email address:

And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it any time.

With this Batuman introduces the key themes of the novel: language, communication and unrequited love. It is via email that Selin will later attempt to progress a friendship with a fellow student.

Initially, Selin tries to navigate her way through which courses to take, who to hang out with and how her relationship with her roommates will work. Eventually she gets into a routine, particularly with her Russian class which meets every day. There she reconnects with Ralph, who she’s met previously at a summer program, and Ivan who becomes her unrequited crush. She is also befriended by Svetlana who’s seen Selin in Linguistics 101.

Some of the reading for the Russian class is a text called Nina in Siberia. It’s been written especially for beginner students using only the grammar they’ve learned so far. In the first section, a man named Ivan has left the protagonist Nina a letter saying he’s left for Siberia.

I found myself reading and rereading Ivan’s letter as if he’d written it to me, trying to figure out where he was and whether he cared about me or not.

When Selin begins to email the real Ivan, she uses the letter as a template to start their correspondence. It’s also via Ivan that she spends the summer in Europe, mostly in Hungary, teaching English in a village. His friend runs the scheme and Ivan tells Selin that he’ll be in Budapest so they can see each other on the weekends.

The Idiot explores some interesting ideas around language and communication. Batuman considers what it means to think and speak in different languages, how communicating electronically or by phone is different to communicating in person, and what you can teach someone about a language that isn’t their first one.

Selin’s trying to work out how to be in the world and the narrative meanders along with her as she tries different friendships and experiences. The Idiot is clever – the exploration of language and the intertextual play is well done and interesting – however, there is a little too much meandering as Selin negotiates a year at university. Worth reading if you want to take an intellectual wander.


Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

A Boy in Winter – Rachel Seiffert

‘I say to myself: where there is light, there will be shadow as well. There will always be darkess, and we must accept this.’

A Boy in Winter takes place over three days in the Ukraine in 1941. It follows several characters as the SS move into a small town and begin rounding up Jews.

Otto Pohl has chosen to work for the Nazis, against his wife’s wishes. An engineer, Pohl decided that building a road was preferable to fighting for Hitler, a man Pohl and his wife are convinced will lose.

The novel begins with Pohl watching the SS searching for Jews at first light.


They are ordered to stand.

‘Mach schon!’

They are ordered to run.

They are herded; they are herded – Pohl can find no other word for it. Three soldiers behind them, even more ahead, the two old people are run down the cobbled street.

He can’t leave the town and get to work quickly enough that morning. But soon he’s forced to realise his complicity in events and has to make a decision as to whether or not he continues to be part of the regime.

Yasia is a young, local woman who lives and works on her father’s farm. Initially, she’s a reminder that the Ukraine have had years of occupation by this point in time:

‘Ten years,’ her papa told his children. ‘But this is the worst one.’

All the collectives in the district had been told to bring in the harvest, though it was barely July. They were to work day and night, if need be. Or destroy the crop: pour paraffin on the fields and burn them. Leave nothing for the Germans.

‘What have the Germans done to us, I ask you? It’s the Communists I’d set fire to,’ her papa declared. ‘I’d walk away and leave them burning.’

Yasia has her own reason to hate Stalin, her husband-to-be, Mykola, was drafted into the Red Army. On his return, Yasia’s father refused to allow them to marry because Mykola’s family couldn’t afford to keep her. When the Germans arrive, Mykola signs up to work for them so he can earn money to maintain his family’s farm, leaving Yasia once again.

Connecting these characters are two young boys who’ve disappeared. On the factory floor where the town’s Jews are being kept, Ephrain and his wife, Miryam, watch the doors waiting for Yankel and Momik to arrive. Ephrain knows that wherever the boys are hiding, there will be trouble once they’re found.

Seiffert explores the choices people make in wartime, the compromises and the rash decisions. The strength of the novel lies in its grey areas. Neither of the main characters are straightforwardly good or bad, both have to confront unexpected situations which could lead to devastating outcomes for those involved. It’s impossible to read a book set in the World War II without a sense of dramatic irony and Seiffert uses this to good effect.

A Boy in Winter is an unsettling look at a horrendous situation. Unflinching but not without hope.

The Women’s Prize 2018 Shadow Panel

For the fifth year running I’m shadowing the Women’s Prize for Fiction. For the fourth time, I’m joined by a panel of other book lovers so we can discuss books we love, loathe and feel completely indifferent about. Experience tells me those books will be different for each of us.

If you’ve followed my coverage of the Women’s Prize before, you’ll recognise the faces below. Antonia Honeywell and Eric Karl Anderson join me for the fourth year, while Eleanor Franzen joins us for a second year. Please follow our comments and reviews on our respective blogs and on Twitter and let us know what you think of the longlist when it’s revealed on Thursday.

Naomi Frisby runs The Writes of Woman, a celebration of female writers and their work. Her short stories have been shortlisted for The White Review Prize and longlisted for Manchester Fiction Prize. She enjoys interviewing writers both for the blog and at bookshops and literary festivals. She is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing. Find her on Twitter @Frizbot.

Eric Karl Anderson is an American-born writer who has lived in London for over a decade and runs the book blog He’s author of the novel ENOUGH and was a judge of the 2015 Green Carnation Prize. He’s also keen on baking and watching disaster movies. Find him on Twitter @LonesomeReader.

Eleanor Franzén is a bookseller at Heywood Hill in Mayfair, and blogs about books at She is writing her first novel, lives in South London, and has more books than clothes. Find her on Twitter @EleanorFranzen.

Antonia Honeywell is a teacher, a writer and an avid and promiscuous reader. Her debut novel, The Ship, a haunting dystopian fable for our times, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Find her on Twitter @antonia_writes.