The winner of this year's Women's Prize for Fiction will be announced next week. In the mean time, here's a taster of the six shortlisted books.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker) by Imogen Hermes Gowar
Jonah Hancock’s counting-house is built wedge-shaped and coffered like a ship’s cabin, whitewashed walls and black skirting, beam pegged snugly to beam. The wind sings down Union Street, rain-drops burst against the windowpane, and Mr Hancock leans forward on his elbows, cradling his brow in his hands. Rasping his fingers over his scalp, he discovers a crest of coarse hair the barber has missed, and idles over it with mild curiosity but no irritation. In private, Mr Hancock is not much concerned with his appearance; in society, he wears a wig.
He is a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips. He is not a handsome man, nor ever was one (and as he perches on his stool his great belly and skinny legs give him the look of a rat up a post), but his meaty face is amiable, and his small eyes with their pale lashes are clear and trusting. He is a man well designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant’s son – a son of Deptford – whose place is not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he sends out into the world – the Eagle, the Calliope, the Lorenzo – cross and re-cross the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, falls asleep each night in the room in which he first drew breath.
Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury Circus) by Jesmyn Ward
I know Jojo is innocent because I can read it in the un-marked swell of him: his smooth face, ripe with baby fat; his round, full stomach; his hands and feet soft as his younger sister’s. He looks even younger when he falls asleep. His baby sister has flung herself across him, and both of them slumber like young feral cats: open mouths, splayed arms and legs, exposed throats. When I was thirteen, I knew much more than him. I knew that metal shackles could grow into the skin. I knew that leather could split flesh like butter. I knew that hunger could hurt, could scoop me hollow as a gourd, and that seeing my siblings starving could hollow out a different part of me, too. Could make my heart ricochet through my chest desperately. I watch Jojo and Kayla’s sprawled sleep and wonder if I ever slept like that when I was young. I wonder if Riv ever looked at me and saw a wild, naïve thing in the cot next to him. I wonder if he felt pity. Or if there was more love. Jojo snores to a snort and stops, and I feel something in my chest, where my heart would be if I were still alive, soften toward him.
I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me from the sky? How could I imagine Parchman would pull me to it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?
Home Fire (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie
Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room. She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her areas of academic interest – but, even so, the officer took hold of every item of Isma’s clothing and ran it between her thumb and fingers, not so much searching for hidden pockets as judging the quality of the material. Finally she reached for the designer-label down jacket Isma had folded over a chair back when she entered and held it up, one hand pinching each shoulder.
‘This isn’t yours,’ she said, and Isma was sure she didn’t mean because it’s at least a size too large but rather it’s too nice for someone like you.
‘I used to work at a dry-cleaning shop. The woman who brought this in said she didn’t want it when we couldn’t get rid of the stain.’ She pointed to the grease-mark on the pocket.
‘Does the manager know you took it?’
‘I was the manager.’
When I Hit You (Atlantic) by Meena Kandasamy
My mother has not stopped talking about it.
Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.
So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the role of the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is, in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.
When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet. (Even when I’m around. Even when my feet are actually visible to her audience. Even when my toes curl in shame. Even when the truth is that my feet had no role in my escape, except to carry me a hundred yards at the most to the nearest auto-rickshaw. My mother seems oblivious to my embarrassment. In fact, I suspect she quite enjoys the spectacle.)
‘You should have seen her feet,’ she says. ‘Were they even feet? Were they the feet of my daughter? No! Her heels were cracked and her soles were twenty-five shades darker than the rest of her, and with one look at the state of her slippers you could tell that she did nothing but housework all the time. They were the feet of a slave.’
Sight (John Murray) by Jessie Greengrass
It is November and I am alone in a hotel room. Outside, an unfamiliar street stretches, empty. It rains a little. We have rented a villa for a fortnight somewhere to the south of here, up in the hills – a place known to us only as a green stretch on a map and a background done in mute regret: dusty slopes planted with cypress rising behind a dozen novels of the English abroad – but we have planned badly and it is the wrong time of year, damp and chilly, mist rising instead of heat above stone terraces, a constant aching mizzle and days to fill indoors. We wanted the sort of holiday that is like a slice of time extracted from the general run of things, and with it a last pass at being just the three of us, a reminder to our daughter that completion is elastic and that she was enough even as we planned her augmentation; but we had things to finish before we could come and then there is the baby to be born when we get back, sometime during the dark and empty days stuffed deep into the gap between Christmas and New Year, so that we could neither come sooner nor wait until in the mountains there might be an outside chance of snow. We must make do with this place caught in the middle of a half-complete moult. For weeks now, oppressed at home by an ever-growing list of things that must be done before the baby comes, by clothes to be brought down from the attic and washed, nappies to be checked over, food prepared in bulk and bedding organised, bills settled, threads tied, as though at the moment of birth time will dislocate itself and these things will not be possible afterwards, I have dreamed of this room, my solitude, an empty stretch. Pregnancy has conferred on me the privileges of old age, an unquestioned pandering to my body’s whims: the flight here was expected to be tiring and so Johannes has taken our daughter on ahead while I am to stay in the city resting before making the remainder of the journey tomorrow, quiet and alone on a tipped-back train seat.
The Idiot (Vintage) by Elif Batuman
I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and knew that in some sense I would "have" it. "You’ll be so fancy," said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, "sending your e . . . mails." She emphasized the "e" and paused before "mail."
That summer, I heard email mentioned with increasing frequency. "Things are changing so fast," my father said. "Today at work I surfed the World Wide Web. One second, I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One second later, I was in Anıtkabir." Anıtkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum, was located in Ankara. I had no idea what my father was talking about, but I knew there was no meaningful sense in which he had been "in" Ankara that day, so I didn’t really pay attention.
On the first day of college, I stood in line behind a folding table and eventually received an email address and temporary password. The "address" had my last name in it—Karadağ, but all lowercase, and without the Turkish ğ, which was silent. From an early age I had understood that a silent g was funny. "The g is silent," I would say in a weary voice, and it was always hilarious. I didn’t understand how the email address was an address, or what it was short for. "What do we do with this, hang ourselves?" I asked, holding up the Ethernet cable.
"You plug it into the wall," said the girl behind the table.