A Bookseller’s Perspective

Waterstones’ Fiction Buyer Bea Carvahlo shares her thoughts on the #ReadingWomen campaign celebrating the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s 25th anniversary and the 2020 shortlist.

At Waterstones, we have been proud to work with the Women’s Prize to celebrate 25 years of championing women’s voices in fiction through the #ReadingWomen campaign. As with everything else this year, our celebrations surrounding the 24 previous winners have had to evolve to fit the world we find ourselves in. But though our doors had to close for three months, and our bookshop events program has been paused, our customers’ appetite for excellent storytelling has not diminished. It has been gratifying to see how many readers have been turning to these books for entertainment and nourishment during this fractious time: the 24 winners have offered us the chance to travel through centuries and continents while being stuck at home.

Whether travelling to 1960s Nigeria through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Mexico and America through Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, or around the globe in Naomi Alderman’s dystopian future of The Power, the list collectively gives us escapism and broadens our horizons – both of which we need more than ever this year.

It is testament to the quality of the judging of the Women’s Prize how much these titles have stood the test of time, and how readers have continued to connect to each of them over the years. The list of winners includes some true giants of contemporary fiction such as Ann Patchett, Ali Smith, and Zadie Smith, as well as debuts which marked the start of exciting and successful careers such as The Song of Achilles. Since winning the prize in 2012, Madeleine Miller went on to be shortlisted for it with Circe, one of the most eagerly awaited releases of 2018 and one of Waterstones’ bestselling Books of the Month ever. Last year’s winner, Tayari Jones, has gone on to have another UK bestseller in Silver Sparrow already: we can’t wait to see what she does next.

As we celebrate the 24 veterans, we look forward to 9th September when the 25th winner will be announced. It is exciting to know that this historic winner resides in this year’s outstanding shortlist. Each of these titles holds a mirror to our time in its own way, and together they define the very best of what modern fiction has to offer.

Angie Cruz’s Dominicana is an important looking at the female immigrant experience, transactional marriage, and filial obligation. A real must-read for understanding the plight of so many from our privileged distance. Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other has been Waterstones’ bestseller during the pandemic: it paints a vibrant, polyphonic, portrait of modern Britain like no other and should be required reading for readers of all walks of life. It is a joy that this important book has introduced Bernardine’s words to such an increased readership.

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light was the most hotly anticipated new book of the year, and publishing’s final great hurrah before bookshops closed their doors in March. In it, Mantel’s exquisite portrayal of the machinations of the Tudor Court comes to a triumphant close, and there’s much to learn about historical and contemporary politics within its pages.

In the true spirit of the Women’s Prize, Natalie Haynes’ fiercely feminist Trojan retelling, A Thousand Ships, gives voices to women previously silenced by literature. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet likewise shines a light on one woman often overlooked by history: Agnes, the wife of William Shakespeare. It is a searing, heartbreaking celebration of motherhood, and a prescient look at a community ravaged by an epidemic. Weather illuminates everyday life in Trump’s America in a way only Jenny Offill could: giving voice to our anxieties about climate change and a troubling political landscape with wit and concision, it will serve as a time-capsule for our era.

This incredible shortlist reflects the health and abundance of women’s fiction today. The judges have a colossal task choosing this year’s winner, and we can’t wait to see which one they crown. In the meantime, we’ll be re-reading the previous winners and reflecting on 25 exciting years of writing by women. Here’s to the next 25.

Get involved in the #ReadingWomen campaign and vote on your favourite to crown the winner of winners. All previous winners can be purchased at Waterstones with a 25% discount using code WPF25. The full shortlist is also available here