Debuts from Hermes Gowar, Greengrass and Batuman make Women's Prize shortlist

Debuts from Hermes Gowar, Greengrass and Batuman make Women's Prize shortlist

Debuts by Imogen Hermes Gowar, Jessie Greengrass and Elif Batuman have been shortlisted for 2018’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Also to have made the cut for the prestigious prize are novels by writers Meena Kandasamy, Jesmyn Ward and the previously shortlisted Kamila Shamsie.

Chair Sarah Sands said the shortlist - which contains three British writers - had been chosen “without fear or favour”.

"We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges," said Sands. "The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers."

New Yorker writer Batuman is shortlisted for her 1990s-set Harvard campus romance, The Idiot (Jonathan Cape). At its centre is Selin, a Turkish-American 18-year-old studying linguistics and literature at Harvard, who teaches ESL and spends a lot of time thinking about what language – and languages – can do. Throughout her journeys, Selin ponders profound questions about how culture and language shape who we are, how difficult it is to be a writer, and how baffling love is. While The Idiot is her debut novel, her first non-fiction book, The Possessed, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award.

Hermes Gowar is shortlisted for The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker), a literary historical debut that was inspired by the artefacts its 30-year-old author was surrounded by while working in museums. Set in Georgian London, it tells the story of how two unlikely people in 18th century London – flighty, desirable courtesan Angelica Neal and widowed merchant Jonah Hancock – are brought together by one extraordinary catch. It was the subject of a 10-way auction before Vintage won the rights after offering a six-figure advance.

The third and final debut on the shortlist is Sight (John Murray), about a woman who recounts her progress to motherhood, while remembering the death of her own mother, and the childhood summers she spent with her psychoanalyst grandmother. Its author, Greengrass, is already known for her short stories. Her collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, an inaugural title on the JM Originals list, went on to win the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award and see her shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. 

By contrast Shamsie is shortlisted for her seventh novel, Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), a reimagining of Sophocles's Antigone asking "what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?". In 2017 the novel was both longlisted for the Man Booker and shortlisted for the Costa.

Also from Bloomsbury's stables, Ward is in the running for her third novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury). Set in Mississippi, it follows 13-year-old Jojo - whose mother can’t put her children above her drug use and whose father is on the verge of being released from prison - who is trying to understand "what it means to be a man". 

Rounding off the list, London-based Indian poet, translator and activist Kandasamy is shortlisted for When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (Atlantic). In the book, a young woman falls in love with and marries a university professor, only to learn what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership.

Sands praised the shortlisted authors as "blazingly good and brave". At stake is £30,000 for the winning author, who will be announced on 6th June.

Big names eluding the shortlist include My Name Is Leon author Kit de Waal, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep author Joanna Cannon and Booker prize-winning writer Arundhati Roy. York bookseller Fiona Mozley, whose debut Elmet made it to the final round of 2017's Man Booker, also missed out on the final cut.

The Women's Prize celebrates "excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world" and is made possible this year with the support of sponsors Baileys, Deloitte and NatWest.