13 Must-Read Books by Women’s Prize for Fiction Winners

These award-winning books are worth adding to your reading list.
These award-winning books are worth adding to your reading list. / Ecco / Knopf / Vintage Books / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Awarded annually to the best novel written by a female author of any nationality, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is among the most prestigious literary awards in the world. It was first conceptualized in response to the Booker Prize shortlist of 1991, which only featured books by male writers. In fact, by 1992, only 10 percent of novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize were penned by women.

The award officially launched in 1996 as the Orange Prize for Fiction. (Orange, a UK-based telecommunications company, was the primary sponsor at the time.) You may also recognize the Women’s Prize for Fiction by a few of its other former names, which include the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2008-2009) and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (2014-2017). It wasn’t until 2018 that the current name was introduced, along with a brand new sponsorship model that removed the need to rely on a single sponsor.

Despite the award’s multiple rebrands over the years, the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s criteria has remained the same since its inception. To be eligible, books must be works of fiction written by female authors and published in English in the United Kingdom during the preceding calendar year. The Women’s Prize Trust also provides a wide range of year-round resources for readers and aspiring writers, including writing development programs, workshops on craft, curated reading lists, and more. 

More than 400 works have been longlisted for this historic literary honor since 1996, with just one title per year coming out on top. In honor of Women’s History Month (and in anticipation of the 2023 Women’s Prize on Wednesday, June 14), here are some major standouts from the last few decades.

1. Bel Canto (2001) // Ann Patchett

Best Women's Prize for Fiction Books: "Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett
"Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett / Harper Books / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto won the Women’s Prize in 2002. Now heralded by many as a modern classic, this gripping thriller is based on the real-life 1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. 

The story follows a group of young terrorists, their hostages, and the life-altering relationships that inevitably unfold as a result, focusing on central themes like music, art, and opera throughout. (Perhaps that helps put the title into context; the traditional operatic term bel canto translates to “beautiful singing.”) Since its publication, the novel has been adapted for a wide variety of entertainment and performance mediums, including a 2015 opera performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and a 2018 film starring Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe.

2. Small Island (2004) // Andrea Levy

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "Small Island" by Andrea Levy
"Small Island" by Andrea Levy / Picador / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Born in London to Jamaican immigrant parents, Andrea Levy largely explores themes of racial identity, colonialism, and immigration in her work through the lens of her Caribbean heritage. Small Island is Levy’s fourth novel, a work of historical fiction that earned the Women’s Prize in 2004. Told through four distinct narrators, the book chronicles the vastly different experiences of two couples—one white, the other a pair of Jamaican immigrants—as they navigate the challenges and complexities of post-war London in 1948. 

In honor of the Prize’s 10th anniversary in 2005, Small Island was awarded the title of the “Best of the Best” prize among the first decade of winners. (The prize was also referred to at the time as the “Orange of Oranges,” a play on the Booker Prize’s equivalent, “Booker of Bookers.”) Prior to winning the Women’s Prize in 2004, Levy was longlisted for the accolade in 1996 for her second novel Never Far From Nowhere, and then served as a judge for the award in 1997.

3. On Beauty (2005) // Zadie Smith

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith
"On Beauty" by Zadie Smith / Penguin Books / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

The 2006 Women’s Prize winner was Zadie Smith’s poignant third book On Beauty, which also made the Man Booker Prize shortlist the same year. This literary novel takes place in a fictional suburb of Boston where two rivaling American families live and work in an archetypal university town. Their lives become inextricably intertwined as the story progresses, and the families feud over everything from differing politics, religious beliefs, professional successes, and drama-invoking, clandestine affairs. 

As the short, punchy title suggests, On Beauty poses the deceptively complex question: What is it that makes life truly beautiful? In addition to being a direct homage to Howard’s End by E.M. Forster, Smith also pulled inspiration for the story from her own experience as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

4. Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) // Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "Half of A Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
"Half of A Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie / Vintage Books / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

By offering a devastating portrait of sisterhood and colonialism, Half of a Yellow Sun transports readers back to a critical moment in Nigerian history and the struggle for independence. The novel opens in the early 1960s and extends into the years that marked Nigeria’s heartbreaking and violent civil war, switching between past and present timelines as the interconnected lives of three individuals—a pair of twin sisters and a 13-year-old boy— unfold. The characters soon find themselves on the run from the looming conflict as their ideals and loyalties to each other are put to the test. 

This celebrated work of historical fiction collected the Women’s Prize in 2007, but its history with it doesn’t end there. In celebration of the award’s 20th anniversary in 2015, Half of a Yellow Sun  was named “Best of the Best” among the second decade of winners. Five years later, Adichie’s novel was also crowned the “Winner of Winners” in a public vote that honored the Prize’s 25th anniversary.

5. The Lacuna (2009) // Barbara Kingsolver

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver
"The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver / Harper Perennial / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

By definition, the term lacuna refers to a gap. It can encompass anything that’s absent—an unfilled space, a skipped interval, or even full sections of a book, manuscript, or journal that are mysteriously missing. (Or perhaps they’re intentionally excluded?) Barbara Kingsolver expands on this vast motif in her seventh novel The Lacuna, an adventurous historical fiction that won the Women’s Prize in 2010. 

The story follows Harrison Shepherd, an American living in 1930s Mexico City who befriends the famed artist Frida Kahlo when he takes on an odd job mixing plaster for her husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Told through Harrison’s collected journal entries that have been stitched back together after his death, The Lacuna is a hard-hitting novel that calls the idea of authenticity and the relationship between art and politics into question through the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and beyond.

6. The Tiger’s Wife (2011) // Téa Obreht

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "The Tiger’s Wife" by Téa Obreht
"The Tiger’s Wife" by Téa Obreht / Random House / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Téa Obreht made Women’s Prize history in 2011 when her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, earned her the title of youngest winner of the award to date. Written mainly while Obreht attended Cornell University, the book is a literary family saga set against the backdrop of a fictional province in the Balkan Peninsula. The region and its people are collectively recovering from years of civil war and unrest as the novel’s protagonist, a young female doctor named Natalia, returns home to help and reconnect with her mysterious grandfather during his final days.

An excerpt of The Tiger’s Wife first appeared in The New Yorker in 2009, years before it would go on to receive critical acclaim and also become a 2011 National Book Award finalist. At the age of 24, Obreht was named by The New Yorker as the youngest (and one of the best) American fiction writers under 40. 

7. The Song of Achilles (2011) // Madeline Miller

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller
"The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller / Ecco / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Even if you know next to nothing about Greek mythology, chances are you’ve heard of Achilles before—or at the very least, his proverbial heel. But in her debut novel The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller aims to dismantle any and all of your expectations. 

A story of young love, friendship, and heartbreak set against the tragedy of war, The Song of Achilles is a reimagining of Homer’s classic Trojan War tale The Iliad and received the Women’s Prize in 2012. Miller’s inspiration for the novel stemmed from her frustration with the continued homophobic erasure by scholars and historians alike of Achilles’s same-sex relationship with Patroclus, a young prince. The product of a decade of extensive research, The Song of Achilles expands the boundaries of classic Greek mythology as we know it to center and celebrate a gay love story for the ages.

8. The Power (2016) // Naomi Alderman

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "The Power" by Naomi Alderman
"The Power" by Naomi Alderman / Little, Brown and Company / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

What would happen if women around the globe suddenly gained superhuman abilities? Naomi Alderman explores this provocative alternate reality and vividly reimagines gendered power dynamics in her sci-fi, historical-fiction hybrid novel, The Power

When the book opens, 5000 years have passed since women and girls first developed an immense “electrostatic power,” leading to a worldwide revolution and a complete societal reset. Readers are immediately thrust into a metafictional manuscript within the novel, which recounts the history of this fantasy world as it also chronicles the vastly different experiences of five distinct narrators during this tumultuous time. In addition to picking up the Women’s Prize in 2017, The Power was also named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times.

9. Home Fire (2017) // Kamila Shamsie

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "Home Fire" by Kamila Shamsie
"Home Fire" by Kamila Shamsie / Riverhead Books / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel Home Fire is a work of literary fiction rife with timely political commentary. At its heart, the story is a family tragedy: It follows three British siblings of Pakistani descent as they reckon with their cultural identity and struggle to feel accepted in a world that would prefer to alienate them. 

Told in five “acts” with different point-of-view characters, the book is also a modern reimagining of Sophocles’s Greek tragedy Antigone that may prompt some readers to examine their views on terrorists and their families. Home Fire netted the Women’s Prize win in 2018 after being shortlisted for the 2018 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. Following the novel’s critical acclaim and success on the awards circuit, the BBC News also included Home Fire in its roundup of the 100 most inspiring English-language novels.

10. An American Marriage (2018) // Tayari Jones

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones
"An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones / Algonquin Books / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Young newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the two central characters in Tayari Jones’s 2018 novel An American Marriage. As they settle into their new roles together in Atlanta, their lives seem like the quintessential embodiment of the American Dream—until Roy is abruptly arrested and convicted of a crime Celestial insists he did not commit. 

As the winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Fiction, Jones’s heart-wrenching fourth novel explores the lasting effects of a wrongful conviction on a young Black couple in America. In 2018, An American Marriage was also selected as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, with Winfrey describing the novel as one that “redefines the traditional American love story.” Later that year, Winfrey also announced plans to produce the book’s film adaptation.

11. Hamnet (2020) // Maggie O’Farrell

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "Hamnet" by Maggie O’Farrell
"Hamnet" by Maggie O’Farrell / Knopf / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

A story of love, loss, and finding one’s way through unbearable grief, Hamnet is a fictionalized account of the life of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of 11 in 1596. But despite recounting this major event in the famous playwright’s life, the novel deliberately leaves Shakespeare unnamed throughout its pages—he is only ever referred to in vague descriptors such as “the husband,” “the father,” or “the Latin tutor.” Instead, Hamnet chooses to shine the spotlight on the often overlooked experience of Shakespeare’s family, focusing also on his wife, who is called Agnes in the book, from the highs of her courtship and marriage to Shakespeare, to the lows of grieving the loss of her son. 

O’Farrell traced her fascination in Hamnet back to the first time she studied Hamlet in school. The novel, which took home the Women’s Prize in 2020, is O’Farrell’s attempt to give the child who inspired one of Shakespeare’s greatest works his own voice in history.

12. Piranesi (2020) // Susanna Clarke

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke
"Piranesi" by Susanna Clarke / Bloomsbury Publishing / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

“When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides.” So begins Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s labyrinth of a novel, which plays with form, perspective, and deliberate disorientation. A reflection on solitude and sanity, the story is set in a fantasy house that holds an infinite number of halls, rooms, and corridors. All are populated with marble statues and devoid of people, save for a man named Piranesi (the eponymous narrator) and a mysterious entity called “the Other.” 

Piranesi received critical acclaim upon publication, winning the 2021 Women’s Prize. It was also shortlisted in 2020 for the BSFA Award for Best Novel and the Costa Book Award, respectively. The audiobook version, which is narrated by award-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, also earned an Audie Award in 2021 for Audiobook of the Year. 

13. The Book of Form and Emptiness (2021) // Ruth Ozeki

Best Women's Prize for Fiction books: "The Book of Form and Emptiness" by Ruth Ozeki
"The Book of Form and Emptiness" by Ruth Ozeki / Viking / Amazon; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

A writer, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest, Ruth Ozeki is known for crafting works of inventive fiction that also effortlessly integrate real-life issues in science, technology, environmental politics, and even global pop culture. Her latest release, titled The Book of Form and Emptiness, is the most recent novel to receive the Women’s Prize, plus several other prestigious literary honors.

Told from the playful point of view of a young boy who begins hearing voices after the death of his father and seeks solace in his local public library, The Book of Form and Emptiness is Ozeki’s “love letter to books and reading.”