The Baileys Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize, was launched in 1996 after the Booker shortlist of 1991 failed to include a single woman. It goes to the best piece of full-length fiction written in English by a woman from anywhere in the world.
With the 2016 winner announced on 8 June, here’s a quick rundown of the shortlisted books, including which you might fancy putting on the TBR list, and which one’s tipped to claim the prize.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East-Texas town. For Ruby Bell, Liberty was a place of devastating violence from which she fled to seedy, glamorous 1950s New York.
Years later, pulled back home, thirty-year-old Ruby is faced with the seething hatred of a town desperate to destroy her. Witnessing her struggle, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.
SYP verdict: Ruby is one of three debuts on the shortlist this year. It’s got a captivating heroine, luminous prose, and is a page-turner on the redemptive power of love. Oh, and it’s also a New York Times bestseller.
Ideal for: Fans of American or historical novels with love and relationships at their core. This provides emotion and beautiful writing in spades.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
A darkly glinting novel set on Ireland’s Atlantic coast, The Green Road is a story of fracture and family, selfishness and compassion – a book about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.
The children of Rosaleen Madigan leave the west of Ireland for lives they never could have imagined in Dublin, New York and various third-world towns. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.
SYP verdict: Winner of the Irish Kerry Group Novel of the Year award, shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year, and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Green Road has garnered glowing praise despite its less than original theme, and is the bookie’s favourite to win the Baileys.
Ideal for: If you like rural Ireland, fractured families, the fragility of life, or just being drawn in by a master of her craft. If you want to read one book this year to sound appropriately literary at publishing’s next wine-fuelled networking opportunity, pick this one.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
One messy murder affects the lives of five misfits who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Ryan is a fifteen-year-old drug dealer desperate not to turn out like his alcoholic father Tony, whose obsession with this unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family. Georgie is a prostitute whose willingness to feign a religious conversion has dangerous repercussions, while Maureen, the accidental murderer, has returned to Cork after forty years in exile to discover that Jimmy, the son she was forced to give up years before, has grown into the most fearsome gangster in the city.
In seeking atonement for the murder and a multitude of perceived sins, Maureen threatens to destroy everything her son has worked so hard for, while her actions risk bringing the intertwined lives of the Irish underworld into the spotlight…
SYP verdict: The second debut and second Irish novel on the list, this one has caused huge excitement, and after The Green Road, is the most likely to win. It’s sweary, polarising and darkly funny.
Ideal for: If you’ve already read and enjoyed A Little Life and want another literary ‘gritty’ gem, or if you fancy an insight into current working-class Ireland.
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.
Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence. What could possibly go wrong?
SYP verdict: Described by one reviewer as Wes Anderson-esque, this book is frankly bonkers and was a surprise inclusion on the list, but if you’re craving something light and quirky, this could be perfect.
Ideal for: Fans of talking squirrels.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild
When lovelorn Annie McDee stumbles across a dirty painting in a junk shop while looking for a present for an unsuitable man, she has no idea what she has discovered. Soon she finds herself drawn unwillingly into the tumultuous London art world, populated by exiled Russian oligarchs, avaricious Sheikas, desperate auctioneers and unscrupulous dealers, all scheming to get their hands on her painting – a lost eighteenth-century masterpiece called ‘The Improbability of Love’.
Delving into the painting’s past, Annie will uncover not just an illustrious list of former owners, but some of the darkest secrets of European history – and in doing so she might just learn to open up to the possibility of falling in love again.
SYP verdict: The third debut, from the only British author on the shortlist, this is perhaps the most accessible of the novels, but by no means does that diminish the writing; it recently won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and was chosen as a Waterstones Book of the Month. It’s perhaps best been described as Michael Frayn meets Bridget Jones.
Ideal for: Art lovers, and people who want a laugh (but not The Portable Veblen).
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel painter pursuing fame in the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented lawyer yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by a degree of trauma that he fears he will not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.
SYP verdict: Also shortlisted for the Man Booker, this novel has divided opinion over the unrelentlessly upsetting scenes concerning the character of Jude. However, it’s also a Great American Novel with brilliant characterisation that completely draws you in, so don’t be put off by its 700 odd pages. The SYP’s sneaky personal favourite to win.
Ideal for: Fans of Donna Tartt or David Foster Wallace, but steer well clear if you’re looking for a light-hearted read.