Electric, poignant, exquisitely written: inside the inaugural Women’s prize for nonfiction shortlist

AI SaaS

As chair of judges for the inaugural Women’s prize for nonfiction, it has been a privilege to read some of the best work produced in English by women in the last year. From our longlist of 16 fantastic titles, my fellow judges Venetia La Manna, Nicola Rollock, Anne Sebba, Kamila Shamsie and I have chosen a shortlist of six must-read books.

The first (in order of author’s surname) is Thunderclap, by Observer art critic Laura Cumming. The author draws attention to the genius of an overlooked artist, Carel Fabritius and, by extension, makes us look anew at the whole of Dutch art. Amid this she weaves in sections of memoir about her artist father. Deeply researched and meticulously wrought, this is tender, electric and highly original. Cumming has a real gift for putting paintings into words: she helps the reader to see things that they might have otherwise missed. She is a master of structure, and her diction is gorgeous, while the revelation on the last page is breathtakingly poignant.

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Women’s prize for nonfiction shortlist 2024

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From the starting point of Naomi Klein’s discomfort at being continually mistaken for the “other Naomi”, feminist turned conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, Doppelganger spirals out to examine the tribal nature of politics today. Klein, writer, climate activist and Guardian US columnist, gives us language with which to conceive of the “mirror world” in which we find ourselves. Her forensic dissection of the strange political realities we are living amid is elegantly crafted into a narrative arc. Doppelganger is deeply clever, original and insightful, and also that harder thing for a book of nonfiction: humorous.

A Flat Place by Noreen Masud is a beguiling mix of landscape and memory. By meditating on the nature of flat topography – that it conveys an undemanding sense of security and peace – and contrasting that with her harrowed and confined childhood, the lecturer at the University of Bristol constructs something utterly original and haunting. Her beautiful and tender prose inducts one into a completely new way of seeing the world – a vision that is absorbing, evocative and memorable.

Harvard professor Tiya Miles’s All That She Carried is a work of monumental historical excavation. With extraordinary imagination, Miles tells the story of a sack given in the 1850s by a woman called Rose to her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley, when Ashley was being sold away from her. The sack was later embroidered by Ashley’s granddaughter. Miles uses this artefact to investigate the hidden lives of enslaved women. Carefully judged, deeply researched, and exquisitely written, All That She Carried is a masterclass in how to contend with the absences of enslaved people in the archives. It brims with intelligence and love.

Code Dependent is an astute and gripping examination of how existing imbalances of power are being replicated, even exacerbated, by AI. Madhumita Murgia, the Financial Times’s first artificial intelligence editor, deeply understands tech, but her primary interest is the humanity behind it. The power of this book lies in the rich stories it tells of individuals confronting new manifestations of very old power structures. Drawing on interviews from around the globe, this highly readable and deeply important book exposes AI’s sordid underbelly.

The poet Safiya Sinclair turns her hand to memoir in How to Say Babylon, an exquisite book about growing up in a Rastafarian family in Jamaica. As a work of autobiography, it is moving, poignant, and even distressing, but Sinclair also tells an illuminating broader story about postcolonial Jamaica, religious fundamentalism, and patriarchy – and how a mother’s love can almost overcome it all. Beautifully written and original in its use of language, it is also a wonderfully compelling read and utterly unforgettable.

On the surface, these books tell six very different stories, spanning continents and centuries. Yet these writers are not only all deft of phrase and original in approach, but each responds uniquely to perceived injustice. They remind us how important it is to heed the perspectives that women bring.

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