Holidays may be looking a little different this year (read: nonexistent) but the ritual of stocking up on books for summer has definitely not been cancelled. Whether you want to make the most of your emptier social calendar on the sofa, enjoy some downtime on a staycation or simply escape the horrors of 2020, diving into an excellent book is the way forward.
Who better to update your reading list than the female authors nominated for this year’s Women's Prize for Fiction? Now in its 25th year, the judges of the prestigious prize have the tough job of whittling down six of the best books written by women and published in the UK over the last year. It’s a stellar lineup as always, with the 2020 shortlist featuring Angie Cruz, Bernardine Evaristo, Natalie Haynes, Hilary Mantel, Maggie O’Farrell and Jenny Offill.
Here they each share a book that made them; stories that shaped their lives and will have an impact on yours.
"I first read Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde when I was in college. I would type up quotes from the book and tape them on the wall over my desk as a permission-giver to use my voice, not fear my anger, and to centre the erotic in my writing and life. For decades these quotes have become like mantras. I encourage everyone to read and reread Lorde’s work. I have recently revisited her essays The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power and The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism as a point of orientation and tool to negotiate the challenges we face every day as women of colour. Here’s one of my favourite quotes: 'When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision—then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.'"
"Morrison has long been my favourite author and in this haunting novel she lowers us slowly down into subterranean depths of slavery in America so that we can fully imagine its depravity and horrors, while also showing us the traumatic consequences of it on those who had to endure it. Morrison inspired me to find my own voice and style as a writer. She herself was inimitable. She was writing out of her culture and time, took risks and exercised her imagination, just as I learned to do the same. Thirty years ago I found the book difficult because it’s quite oblique. Today I enjoy the active reading this sophisticated and complex text encourages. I’d recommend this book because it’s a timeless classic and the reader will be emotionally and intellectually affected and enlightened by it."
"I first read this collection as a sixth-former: I loved Medea so much, my dad drove me 110 miles to London to see Diana Rigg play the title role. It was the first time I’d seen a play with a woman as the lead, the first time I’d read an ancient text which focused on women’s experiences. Three years later, I wrote my dissertation on two of these plays, Medea and Hecabe, [which are about] two women who commit monstrous revenges on the men who have injured them. They’re two of the best plays ever written. Twenty years after that dissertation, I began writing A Thousand Ships, a novel with Hecabe as a character. During lockdown, I signed a two-book deal to write a novel about Medusa and then one about Medea. These extraordinary, terrible, unapologetic women have never stopped inspiring my work (although luckily not my social life)."
"Not an original choice but an honest one: Jane Eyre. I first read it aged 10, and Charlotte Brontë’s driven, passionate, first-person narrative was my earliest experience (on the page) of a woman’s voice demanding to be heard. For the first time, I found someone like myself in a book. I identified with Jane, so angry, so unchildlike and so troubled by ghosts. I read it again at 13 and realised the first version I’d picked up had been cleverly abridged, neatly excluding some of the more improbable events. I liked the abridged version better. It was good to recognise the book was not perfect. Unconsciously, and through many re-readings, I absorbed its lessons about writing; I learned about suspense, characterisation, dialogue. Even today I respond most strongly to the passages that originally fascinated me. I am riveted by the gruelling childhood sections, the midnight horrors of Thornfield Hall, and Jane’s flight over the moors, solitary and conscience-driven. I don’t care much about the romance. Instead of ‘Reader, I married him,’ I would have preferred ‘Reader, I got over him.’ But it is a capacious book; love and fear, desolation and redemption, the struggle to grow and thrive – these themes are for everyone, and for always."
"The Yellow Wallpaper is an account by a nameless young woman of a summer spent in a large country house. She is, she tells you, ‘sick’ with a ‘temporary nervous depression’. Her husband, a doctor, confines her to a top-floor room to rest: ‘[I] am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.’ So lonely and bored is she that she begins to imagine that there is a woman trapped behind the pattern on the ugly yellow wallpaper of her locked room. I first read it when I was 16 and it hit me like an electric charge. I had no idea that it was possible to write in such frank, compelling detail about illness, madness and marriage. When I read it in adulthood, I was surprised to have previously overlooked the baby, who is mentioned only in passing. Of course, I realised, she is suffering from postpartum depression. It’s spooky, odd, savagely beautiful. Once read, it will never be forgotten."
"For a long time, I resisted reading Mrs Dalloway. All I knew was that it centred on a rich middle-aged woman planning a party. As a young broke person subsisting on canned soup, I doubted I would like it. But then I read an essay of Woolf's that contained this mini manifesto: ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.’ And so I picked up Mrs Dalloway and was thrilled by its subversive swings from the trivial to the sublime and back again. I also found in it a model for the novel I hoped to one day write. Her elaborate, far-reaching sentences were very different from my own but her insistence on the importance of recording the modest, the quiet, the almost unseen moments of life was a revelation and continues to be."
The winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction will be announced on 9th September 2020.
Looking for even more reading recommendations? Dive into the back catalogue of Women’s Prize winners and join the #ReadingWomen challenge to read all 24 books.