Words: Anna James
This year’s Baileys shortlist is stacked with big names, previous shortlistees and few surprising choices. The task of whittling down the longlist fell to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights advocacy group, Liberty; Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project; columnist and broadcaster Grace Dent; the winner of the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction, Helen Dunmore and Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman.
None of the writers have won the prize before but four of them have been shortlisted, some more than once. I’m sad not to see Sandra Newman's longlisted novel make the cut – The Country of Ice Cream Star is glorious, challenging and moving. Fans of last year’s winner, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride should add it to their reading list even though it didn’t make the shortlist.
The chair of this year's judging panel, Shami Chakrabarti, announced the shortlist at a party held at the Serpentine Gallery last night.
Here's your at-a-glance guide to each of the 6 shortlisted novels:
Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber)
This is Cusk’s eighth novel, and she’s also written several non-fiction titles including the much-discussed look at her second marriage after it broke down, Aftermath. Outline is the story of a woman who travels to Athens to teach a creative writing course and the people who tell her their stories along the way. The book weaves together tales of love, hope and pain into a novel about telling stories and how we represent ourselves. Cusk, who was one of Granta magazine’s 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003, was shortlisted for this year’s Folio prize for this book.
The Bees by Laline Paull (Fourth Estate)
The only debut on the list is an experimental dystopian novel… set in a beehive. Flora 717 is a worker bee who, after being saved from execution for deformity by the priestess bee, goes on to question the status quo of the hive. But this is not a flippant book; Paull uses her setting to explore idea of conformity, motherhood and and human nature. Some reviewers felt that while the concept is clever the execution isn’t always on point but it’s refreshing to see something unusual and boundary-pushing among a list of established names and more traditional storytelling.
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)
This epic and evocative novel takes the reader to three great empires; ancient Persia, the declining Ottoman empire and India under British colonial rule. Shamsie was previously shortlisted for the prize with 2005’s Broken Verses and was on Granta’s 2013 list of best young British writers and this book is also currently on the Walter Scott Prize shortlist for historical fiction. This multi-layered novel has been splitting reviewers opinions but everyone agrees that Shamsie is second to none in terms of enveloping readers in the worlds that she creates, and she’s an expert at blending history with sweeping stories.
How to be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Smith has been shortlisted for the prize twice before; for 2001’s Hotel World and 2005’s The Accidental. How to be Both has also been shortlisted for almost every literary prize it’s been eligible for including the Man Booker and the Costa Prize. It won the Goldsmiths Prize for “fiction that opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. So unsurprisingly Smith is the bookies favourite at the moment but it’s justified; this creative, playful story of identity, gender and first impressions was my book of 2014. Literary but never pretentious, this is written in two halves which can be read either way round. A complete delight from start to finish, whichever way round you read it.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus)
Arguably the biggest name on the shortlist, Tyler has published 20 novels, won the Pulitzer prize and has been shortlisted for this prize twice before, including in it’s very first year for The Hundred Secret Senses. A Spool of Blue Thread is beloved by several of my colleagues at The Bookseller who love its portrayal of the Whitshank family through several generations. She covers everything from marriage, childbirth and prodigal children to old age and tragedy. Tyler writes with grace and humour and there’s a reason she’s loved by so many readers. A strong contender for the prize and a good place to start for a way into the shortlist.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Virago)
Another writer with multiple Women’s Prize shortlistings to her name; in 2002 for Fingersmith and in 2006 for The Night Watch. Waters is a much-loved writer of pacey historical fiction than ticks both boxes; it’s incredibly readable and engaging while also being hugely impressive on a literary front. Fingersmith still holds the title for one of my favourite twists in a book and the TV adaption of Waters’ Tipping the Velvet is iconic. Set in 1922, this book tells the story of Frances and her mother who take in lodgers, the titular paying guests, who disturb the delicate status quo.