Americanah by Chimamanda Ngazo Adichie
As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu - beautiful, self-assured - departs for America to study. She experiences defeats and triumps, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze - the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor - had hoped to join her, but post 9/11 American will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Years later, he is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a write of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu decides to return home, she and Obinze will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
Mary Beard: "A wonderful book from a writer who makes words to extraordinary things. On almost every page there's a sentence that makes you want to stop, think and read it again."
Adichie won the prize when it was the Orange Prize for Half of a Yellow Sun and this novel has been similarly well received. Adichie talked about the sense of homelessness that pervades Americanah as something she had taken from her experience as a Nigerian student living in the USA. On returning home she felt an incredible sense of loss, as if Nigeria had moved on with her, and this is a theme she aimed to capture in the novel.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
In Northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district officer Jon Jonsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contant with Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes's spiritual guardian, is compelled to try and understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes's story begins to emerge - and with it the terrible realisation that all is not as they has assumed.
Sophie Raworth: "A stunning, hauting debut by this young Australian writer. Beautiful prose, evocative imagery, Hannah Kent transports you effortlessly. It's a book that will stay with you for a long time."
This is Kent's debut novel which was inspired by an exchange programme to Iceland Kent went on aged 17 where she came across the site of the country's last execution, a woman who everyone considered evil. She was affected by their similar situations as outsiders in an alienating place and Kent remained haunted by the character until she decided to explore her in prose.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
From Subhash's earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother's sight. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass - as US tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India - their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will end up as their lives. Udayan - charismatic and impulsive - finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion wages to eradicate inequality and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so, will transform the futures of those dearest to him.
Helen Fraser: "Moving and vivid, an unforgettable story of two brothers and the different paths they take. A novel about how political passion can destroy lives."
Lahiri absorbed much of her parents' anxieties about rebellion in Calcutta in the 1960s and 70s, experienced as Indians living helplessly in America, and channelled this into The Lowland. Lahiri talked about wanting to create a novel in which none of the characters are entirely innocent.
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
Desperate to escape the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met; it is a marriage of convenience that promises honeymoon leave for him and a pension for her should he die on the front. With ten days' leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin; both are surprised by the attraction that develops between them. When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of his wife that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her deserate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into the Nazi party hierarchy, wedding herself, her young husband and their unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina, ordinary people stained with their small share of an extraordinary guilt, find their simple dream of family increasingly hard to hold on to.
Denise Mina: "An extraordinarily startling, hypnotic debut novel, both sparse and rich, bringing a brutal era to life. So vivid it leaves the reader with a lingering sense of having been present at world events."
Magee spent time in Germany when was 18, and was fascinated by the shroud of silence surrounding the war, even 40 years on. She described a situation in which she witnessed the unbridgeable gap between a woman who had lived locally to a concentration camp and a man visiting to commemorate relatives who had died there. Magee built her narrative for The Undertaking around the German perspective as an alternative and often overlooked subject.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Eimear McBride's debut tells the story of a young woman's relationship with her brother and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. It is not so much a stream of consciousness as an unconsciousness railing against a life that makes little sense, forming a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a young and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is to plunge inside the narrator's head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn't always comfortable - but it always a revelation.
Caitlin Moran: "An astonishing debut novel of risk, energy and creative dazzle - half-sound, half-colour. The kind of book that makes you proselytise to friends, strangers and random cold-callers to the house."
Famously rejected by mainstream publishers before being picked up by Galley Beggars, the book has now had a slew of prize wins and nominations. McBride spoke about her protagonist's experiences being circumscribed by Catholicism, and how she has no way of understand herself and her surrounding outside of the heavily moral framework she grew up in.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Aged 13, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, miraculously survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is bewildered by his new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ulimately draws Theo into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love - and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.
Helen Fraser: "A novel with Dickensian breadth, which grips from the first page and explores loss, grief, rescue and love brilliantly."
Tartt's long awaited novel won the Pulitzer Prize this year and yet has had mixed reviews. Game of Thrones actor Charles Dances read from the book at the prize readings before Tartt's publicist, Gill Coleridge, talked about the influence of Dickens on Tartt who grew up reading him.
Naomi at The Writes of Woman has done a brilliant summary of the shortlist as well here.
(Plot summaries are from the Women's Prize website.)
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