Half of 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, announced on 26 April, is made up of first-time novelists as well as previous Women’s Prize-winning and shortlisted authors. There are four British, one American, and one Irish author in the running to win the £30,000 prize, whose winner will be declared on June 14.
This year’s jury is chaired by Louise Minchin, and the judging panel includes novelist Rachel Joyce, journalist Bella Mackie, writer Irenosen Okojie, and the UK member of parliament Tulip Siddiq. Minchin said that the shortlist is an “exquisite set of ambitious, diverse, thoughtful, hard-hitting and emotionally engaging novels. A glittering showcase of the power of women’s writing.”
Here are the opening lines of the shortlisted books:
Black Butterflies, Priscilla Morris
It sometimes seems to Zora that, with all the teaching and curating and meetings and paperwork and caring and cooking and cleaning and errands, she is floundering at the midpoint of her life. There’s no time left over for the core of her. Perhaps, at fifty- five, she’s beyond the midpoint now, but she’d always imagined that these years – her child grown and gone, herself not yet old – would be her most spacious and productive. She’d pictured herself spending long, blissful days in her studio. But, instead, everything else always encroaches.
There’s the forward rhythm of the tram and the rattle of the dusty windowpanes – the worry. She presses her forehead to the glass, drinking in her city at this strange hour. The wind carries twisting flyers down the street and the mountains waver in the pre-dawn light. The outlines of things – buildings, frozen cars, a sleeping drunk – are porous. The threshold between night and day feels uncertain, as if she could just as easily slip back into the night as go forwards into the day.
Her husband, the sole other passenger, keeps his eyes closed and grips the handrail. His head droops, long spine curving. She could hardly stir him from bed. It’s the weekend and she’d hoped to spend her day in the studio, but the terse five am. phone call put a stop to that.
Pod, Laline Paull
Just below the equator, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, is a curving archipelago almost four hundred miles long. The biggest and most easterly island starts the chain which dwindles to the west, terminating in three tiny atolls. There is a gap in the chain where, in the latter part of the twentieth century, one atoll was completely vapourised during nuclear testing.
These troubled waters shelter broken nations, refugees and ghosts, but this is the story of two estranged cetacean tribes, cousins with a painful past. The first are the Longi people, a tiny pod of Stenella longirostris, or spinner dolphins. The second is the megapod of common bottlenose dolphins, or Tursiops truncatus, who drove the Longi from their home and took it for themselves.
Each pod has pride and virtue, each feels above the other. They do not know they share one fatal flaw: they think they know this ocean.
Fire Rush, Jacqueline Crooks
One o’clock in the morning. Hotfoot, all three of us. Stepping where we had no business.
Tombstone Estate gyals Caribbean, Irish. No one expects better. We ain’t IT. But we sure ain’t shit. All we need is a likkle bit of riddim. So we go inna it, deep, into the dance-hall Crypt. “Come, nuh,” Asase calls. Pushing her way down the stairs. High-priestess glow. Red Ankara cloth wound round her hair like a towering inferno.
Asase is the oldest, twenty-five, a year older than me and Rumer.
Rumer is nothing like her red-haired Irish family. My gyal is dance-taut, tall with a rubber-ribbed belly androgynous. Blonde, she dyes her hair Obsidian Black, stuffs it underneath a knitted red-gold green Rasta cap.
We squeeze past chirpsing men. Stand in front of the arched wooden door. Suck in the last of the O2.
I follow Asase inside. My gyal follows the smoke. Beneath barrel-vaulted arches. Dance-hall darkness. Pile-up bodies. Ganja clouds. We lean against flesh-eating limestone walls near two coffin-sized speaker boxes that vibrate us into the underworld.
Runnings: the scene goes the usual way; a Rasta pulls Rumer which is good because that’s the only kinda man she’ll dance with. “They’re respectful, they’re my bredren,” she says. A sweet bwoy pulls Asase.
Testing, testing: one, two, three. Lights go on for a few seconds.
Trespasses, Louise Kennedy
They follow the guide, a thin, pale girl. She’s wearing a linen sheath dress in moss green, and there’s a fine spiky tattoo wound around her right arm that looks like barbed wire. Cushla moves to the edge of the crowd, away from the French and Italian tourists in expensive rain gear; her own age, which still surprises her. Away from the man on her left, pushing fifty, with steel-gray hair that’s greased back, small glasses, and a soft wool jacket.
The guide stands slightly to the side of the next exhibit, a couple feet from Cushla. This close, she can see the barbed pattern on the girl’s skin. It’s gorse, spiky tendrils of stems and golden flowers. Cushla likes her for it, for choosing the shrub that chokes the hills here, not roses or butterflies or stars.
It’s a piece of sculpture, made of resin, fabric, glass fiber. A white figure on a plinth, chalky, sarcophagal, a shrouded look about the face, features indistinct. The body is oddly sexless, though it is male; there is breadth in the torso, bulk at the chest. From the waist up he looks peaceful, sleeping head resting near the bend of an arm. There is something not right about the pose, though; his limbs are splayed awkwardly, have not been arranged.
The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell
Lucrezia is taking her seat at the long dining table, which is polished to a watery gleam and spread with dishes, inverted cups, a woven circlet of fir. Her husband is sitting down, not in his customary place at the opposite end but next to her, close enough that she could rest her head on his shoulder, should she wish; he is unfolding his napkin and straightening a knife and moving the candle towards them both when it comes to her with a peculiar clarity, as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them, that he intends to kill her.
She is sixteen years old, not quite a year into her marriage. They have travelled for most of the day, using what little daylight the season offers, leaving Ferrara at dawn and riding out to what he had told her was a hunting lodge, far in the north-west of the province. But this is no hunting lodge, is what Lucrezia had wanted to say when they reached their destination: a high-walled edifice of dark stone, flanked on one side by dense forest and on the other by a twisting meander of the Po river. She would have liked to turn in her saddle and ask, why have you brought me here?
Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver
First, I got myself born. A decent crowd was on hand to watch, and they’ve always given me that much: the worst of the job was up to me, my mother being let’s just say out of it.
On any other day they’d have seen her outside on the deck of her trailer home, good neighbours taking notice, pestering the tit of trouble as they will. All through the dog-breath air of late summer and fall, cast an eye up the mountain and there she’d be, little bleach-blonde smoking her Pall Malls, hanging on that railing like she’s captain of her ship up there and now might be the hour it’s going down. This is an eighteen-year-old girl we’re discussing, all on her own and as pregnant as it gets. The day she failed to show, it fell to Nance Peggot to go bang on the door, barge inside, and find her passed out on the bathroom floor with her junk all over the place and me already coming out. A slick fish colored hostage picking up grit from the vinyl tile, worming and shoving around because I’m still inside the sack that babies float in, pre- real-life.