The Best Books that Didn’t Win the Women’s Prize for Fiction

They’re well worth celebrating


Next week the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is celebrating its 20th anniversary by awarding a Best of the Best prize to one of the winners from the last ten years.


The first Best of the Best was won by Andrea Levy’s Small Island in 2005.

This decade’s winner will be announced at a ceremony in London on Monday night (you can buy tickets here).

My money is on either Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun or Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.

For the past 20 years the Women’s Prize has been elevating and celebrating women’s voices and bringing sales, attention and readers to their long and shortlists.


So in celebration of that here are my favourite books from the long and shortlists that didn’t win from the last five years.  

I’ve excluded two favourites, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (longlisted in 2014) and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (shortlisted in 2013), because they won the Man Booker prize in their respective years.

Here are some titles that might have passed you by:

The Bees by Laline Paull (shortlisted this year)

I delayed reading this when it was shortlisted because I don’t like ‘animal books’ but I was quickly proven wrong. This intense, layered look at privilege, class and gender – all set in a bee hive – is intoxicating.

The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (longlisted this year)

I was bitterly disappointed that this wasn’t shortlisted as it was one of my absolute favourite books of 2014. It’s an epic, hugely intelligent story of a young girl in a post apocalyptic America. It’s entirely told in Newman’s invented patois and while it requires a bit of concentration to get going, once you do you will fall in love.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (shortlisted in 2014)

I started this book planning to just read the first 50 pages to get a feel for it and ended up reading it in one sitting in one night. I was completely entranced by Lahiri’s subtle, sensitive look at belonging, family and sacrifice. The book’s heroine, Gauri, got some criticism but I was fascinated by her fierce independence and ambition.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (shortlisted in 2013)

Life After Life is on my list of all time favourite books and was shortlisted during an incredibly strong year for the prize (the winner that year was AM Homes’ May We Be Forgiven). This novel is hugely impressive from a literary perspective but also incredibly moving on a human level; it’s everything I want in a book.

The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (longlisted in 2013)

Another longlisted book that I was really sad to not see shortlisted but 2013 really was a year of amazing writing by women. This book asks, what if Shakespeare’s plays were written by Christopher Marlowe? It’s told entirely in verse and is an ambitious but hugely moving accomplishment.

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (shortlisted in 2013)

I see a lot of books being marked out as the new Where’d Do You Go Bernadette but none of them have yet managed to match the wit, intelligence and sheer charm of this story of a mother/daughter relationship set in Seattle.

How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti (longlisted in 2013)

Heti’s book received mixed reviews but I really loved it and if you’re a fan of Lena Dunham and Girls you should definitely find a copy. It’s about the trivialities, difficulties and joys of being an adult woman. I found it clever, uncomfortable and funny.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (longlisted in 2012)

This is an entrancing, beautifully crafted magical story of a monochrome circus that mysteriously appears around the world and the pair of star-crossed lovers inextricably linked to it. The world-building is exquisite, you’ll desperately want the circus to pop up in your town by the end of the story.

The Blue Book by AL Kennedy (longlisted in 2013)

I found this book rather unpleasant at times – it features some not very nice people doing not very nice things to each other – but I couldn’t look away. The story is so cleverly constructed and has an amazing reveal at the end that completely rewards the reading experience.

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (shortlisted in 2011)

This unflinching look at the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s will stay with you long after the last page. It focuses in on individual people in Freetown caught up and affected in different ways and is a brutal but beautiful novel.

Words by ELLE Literary Editor Anna James

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