Two of the PFD Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlist…

The winner of the PFD Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in association with the University of Warwick was announced earlier this week.  Adam Weymouth’s non-fiction book, Kings of the Yukon (which I shall be reading next), scooped this year’s prize from an interesting shortlist that was wide open as to who would win. I’d been expecting Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock to triumph somehow, but I am secretly delighted that a non-fiction book has won, as I’ve made, indeed am still making, an effort to up my NF reading this year. I did manage to read two of the shortlist before the award’s announcement – the other two I’ve not mentioned above as it happens, so here are my thoughts on them…

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Meeting Laura at the prize’s Bloggers Event last month was lovely. In person, she was absolutely charming and witty, with a cut-glass accent rather like that of Keeley Hawes, and oh so slim – I wanted to wrap her up and protect her.

Her book, however, tells of the physical and mental battle she has had with anorexia which was diagnosed when she was in her mid-teens and how a love of reading helped her find a way towards a healthier mind and body, through desperate times when she was so ill. The curious thing is that reading about food in literature, from Dickens and Sassoon to Woolf and even Harry Potter, piqued her brain just enough to gradually realise how utterly delicious and necessary food can be and her appetite started to return.  In the initial chapters, we spend a lot of time with Dickens, Sassoon, Robert Graves and later Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor;  with rich descriptions of plum puddings and picnics, as well as food on the go.

After this diet of male authors, Freeman turned to some women, discovering the gastronomic works of MF Fisher and Elizabeth David, food writers who can make your mouth water with the quality of their writing.  By this time in her twenties, Laura was beginning to be more adventurous with her eating. But then clean eating arrived, and with it a wobble:

I should have beaten it back, this clean-eating creed and crusade, built myself a fortress of books: {…} I didn’t. I let it take over. This disgust of food dressed up as an almost religious virtue. Those monstrous voices I had battled with for years, those voices spitting against the filthiness of eating, the shame of appetite, those bullies and demons came roaring back. What had once existed only in my unhappy mind […] was now bodied forth by siren-beauties and ‘wellness’ bloggers in books and newspapers, on restaurant menus and in shopping baskets.

Laura turned to Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters: Woolf’s husband, Leonard, had believed that Virginia suffered from an eating disorder.

I found in her diaries, and then her letters, a corrective to clean eating. Meals may not always have been easy for her, as they so sybaritically were for Mary Frances Fisher and Elizabeth David, but Woolf struck a balance between not wanting to eat and knowing she must eat.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that Laura conquered the clean-eating fad which still pervades our shelves and screens. If you have a medical need, a genuine food intolerance or allergy, fine. If you can’t eat a food for religious reasons or ethical choices, fine. But, ever since I read Dr Tim Spector’s The Diet Myth (reviewed here), I’ve been an advocate for promoting good gut health and a diet rich in food types over restrictive (which includes clean) eating, dangerous alkaline diets and suchlike.

Back to Laura. When she is describing the food, her writing is witty and sprightly, full of rich language: butter ‘skirls’ in a pan, bacon is ‘suitably frizzled’, relish is ‘garum-like’ (Roman fish sauce). When describing her illness, she doesn’t shy away from telling us how awful it was; she grits her teeth and tells all.  However, it is the books that dominate over her private life – a hard balance to strike, but one that succeeds, given her love of literature, positivity and recognition of knowing that relapse is still possible,  and determination that this book shouldn’t be a misery memoir.  She has come a long way and I look forward to her next venture (she hinted that a biography was a possibility) with great interest.   (9/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you.  Laura Freeman, The Reading Cure (W&N, 2018) hardback, 272 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

UK paperback cover

Taking its name from an ancient Celtic kingdom in Yorkshire, Elmet is a powerful debut novel that has been recognised by several long and shortlistings since its publication, notably making the 2017 Man Booker shortlist last year.  (This prize’s year runs from June to June, hence its eligibility in case you were wondering).

The story is narrated by Daniel who is fourteen. He and his older sister Cathy live in a house his Daddy has built in Yorkshire near the London to Edinburgh railway line on land not owned by him. The two of them don’t go to school any more, having experienced trouble there due to their outsider status; now, their neighbour, Vivien, gives them some basic lessons occasionally. Daniel tends to be the housekeeper in their house, and they grow vegetables and forage to supplement the money their Daddy, a giant of a man, earns in fighting, bare-knuckle style; he is famed for his ferocity and ability. Daniel’s mother is long-gone, he has few memories of her, she used to come and go, but then she was just gone.  Daddy looks after them now.

Then Mr Price comes to visit.  Their house is built on his land – he owns a lot of the land and houses around the nearby village, fleecing the tenants who struggle to make ends meet now the mine is closed, and showing no mercy to those who can’t, or won’t, pay.  Price demands rent, but offers a deal for Daddy to essentially become his bailiff.  Instead, Daddy hatches a plan with another of Price’s tenants to demand fair rents and wages for the village. You can imagine a little of what will happen without me needing to explain much further, but as we read in the prologue, it will end up with Daniel searching for his sister.

Mozley’s evocative writing is able to capture the extremes of this novel really well – from lovely, lyrical, descriptive passages about nature, landscape and trains constantly rumbling by, to the visceral violence of Daddy’s fights and the underlying menace that is always there. Daniel, by comparison is gentle young man, unlike Cathy who has had to learn to become strong and more like Daddy, who stands like a colossus over this electrifying debut novel which richly deserves the plaudits it has garnered.  Not sure about the paperback cover though… (10/10)

Source: Review copy – Thank you.  Fiona Mozley, Elmet (John Murray, 2017) paperback, 312 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

8 thoughts on “Two of the PFD Sunday Times Young Writer Award shortlist…

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I had been previously tempted by Elmet but your first review piqued my interest too, particularly because of your comments on the writing. However, since I already have sooooo many NF books to read/reread and review… 😁

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Freeman’s book enriched my foodie vocab hugely! Elmet was unputdownable though – I started it on the train home from London and finished it that evening.

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I’m so pleased you liked both of these so much, Annabel. You can see why it was a tough choice for us shadow judges. I’m completely with you on clean eating and diet fads. I read The Diet Myth on your recommendation and thought it was superb.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I agree, both wonderful books, and I’m just about to start reading Kings of the Yukon. Tim Spector has been cropping up on Radio 4 a few times lately – and he talks such good sense!

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    Elmet was one of my favourites from last year. I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t win, but, then again, I haven’t read Kings of the Yukon yet! I hope to soon if PFD can send a copy.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I did love Elmet, but given the exposure it’s already had, I was happy for the attention to be shared. Looking forward to the Weymouth next.

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