Cover Photo: Instagram/@womensprize

Since 1996, the Women's Prize For Fiction has shone a spotlight on outstanding works written by women, inspiring many around the globe to pursue their passions

This story was originally published on July 22, 2020 and updated on September 9, 2021.

In the last two decades, this highly respected literary award has been presented to authors of incredibly important and impressive works of fiction, such as Carol Shields, Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Barbara Kingsolver and Zadie Smith. And many past recipients and nominees have gone on to empower aspiring writers to share their stories through mentoring programmes, literary events, reading groups and a weekly podcast hosted by the organisation. 

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This year, the Women's Prize has been awarded to Susanna Clarke for her sophomore novel, Piranesi. 

Tatler Asia
Photo: Goodreads
Above Photo: Goodreads

"As some of you may know, Piranesi was nurtured, written and publicised during a long illness. It is a book that I never thought I would get to write; I never thought I'd be well enough. My hope is that my standing here tonight will encourage other women who are incapacitated by long illness. This is an immense and incredible honour," says Clarke in her acceptance speech. 

Her spellbinding story brings you into the strange and eerie world of Piranesi. He lives in the House, which somehow holds an ocean on the bottom floor, with waves crashing onto the marble staircase that leads to endless corridors and interconnected halls. At the top of this partially ruined house, thick clouds move in slow procession. Twice a week, Piranesi is visited by his friend, the Other and together, they search for A Great and Secret Knowledge.

But as the story unfolds in a succession of diary entries from this curious protagonist, you start to wonder how Piranesi even came to become the Beloved Child of The House, wordlessly tending to its needs and inhabitants. Is the House a sanctuary or a prison? 

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Piranesi's hauntingly beautiful and innocent voice permeates through the many layers of this metaphoric, mysterious world, creates a truly unique reading experience. It comes to no surprise that the eponymous book was selected to win by a panel of esteemed judges. 

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However, the final shortlist did make for strong contenders. Each selected for how they "grapple with society's big issues... through thrilling storytelling", these five books still deserve to be on your reading list.

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1. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

This genre-defying book introduces an unnamed protagonist who has recently gained international fame and success for her social media posts. Just as she begins to navigate this new digital realm of social media and influence, nicknamed 'the portal', she receives two urgent texts from her mother, forcing her to return back to more solid ground. 

Set in a fictional world facing familiar threats, such as dictators, climate change, economic precarity and the collective deterioration of mental health, No One Is Talking About This is a sober but witty meditation on the modern world. Lockwood explores complex themes of love, grief, language and human connection in a unique voice that subsumes the lexicon and mood of a generation of young adults who grew up during the age of the Internet. 

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2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

According to the judges, this book was chosen for the way it "really gets to the heart of the pernicious consequences of racism". A strong contender, The Vanishing Half follows the Vignes, light-skinned, twin sisters who ran away together from home in the Deep South during the 1950s and where they find themselves a decade later—one living in the same southern town she once tried to escape and the other hiding her racial identity from her white husband. 

In this riveting story, Bennett weaves an intricate web of plot lines that bring together the Vignes, their daughters and their communities. Going below the surface of issues on overt racism and violence that was rife during this era in American history, she shapes three-dimensional characters with their own desires and expectations, offering a nuanced discussion that encompasses motherhood, abuse and community.

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3. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Marriage, motherhood and murder all come together on a beautiful island paradise in Cherie Jones' thrilling debut novel.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House begins with a cautionary tale of what happens to girls who disobey their mothers, which becomes an underlying current throughout the novel as the protagonists, Lala and Mira Whalen deal with the unintended consequences of a thwarted burglary of a mansion on Baxter's Beach, Barbados. The former is a young mother who works braiding hair for wealthy foreigners on the island while the latter has returned after living abroad. 

At once a story about the sacrifices women make to survive and a commentary about the poverty and violence beyond the white sand beaches of idyllic Caribbean vacation destinations, this novel has earned great praise from many, including the last winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction, Maggie O’Farrell, author of Hamnet: "It is a novel of great elegance and verve—hard to believe it’s a debut."

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4. Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

Uneducated and living in an old cottage in the rural English countryside, 51-year-old twins, Jeannie and Julius, lived happily among their vegetable gardens and chicken coop, taking the occasional odd job to eke out their meagre living. But all comes crashing down when their mother and sole caretaker, Dot, suddenly passes away. 

Claire Fuller's Unsettled Ground follows the two protagonists as they discover secrets that their mother has hidden from them and navigate the real world outside their sanctuary. Written in beautiful and lyrical prose, this melancholic tale of a dysfunctional family as they grapple with loss and hardship is one that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

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5. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

In 2016, Yaa Gyasi stunned the literary world with her phenomenal debut album, Homegoing, a family saga that also takes an unflinching look at the history of colonialism and slavery in Ghana and America across 300 years. 

Transcendent Kingdom is a powerful follow-up that also centres on a Ghanaian family in America but focuses on its main character, Gifty. A fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine, struggling with loss of her brother to an opioid addiction, she throws herself into finding the scientific basis of suffering but finds herself drawn back to her childhood faith and its tantalising promise of salvation.

At the heart of this emotionally searing and deeply moving portrait of a grieving young woman, there is a compelling and careful dissection of modern America and the realities of the immigrant experience. 

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