Reading the Sunday Times Young Writer Award Shortlist

The Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award is the UK and Ireland’s most influential prize for young writers, and the latest winner will be announced on Feb 24th, preceded by an event at Waterstones Piccadilly, chaired by Sebastian Faulks on Feb 23rd (you can buy tickets here). I’d love to go, but am still a bit wary of travelling to London by train, I’m undecided, but could be persuaded if any of you are also planning to go….

This prize is one I’ve followed for a number of years. My first year of following closely was 2016, when I was invited to a Bloggers Event at the Groucho Club (written up here); Max Porter won. Then in 2017 I was invited to join the bloggers Shadow Panel which remains something I’m very proud of, write up here.

Returning to this year’s books, I was very grateful to receive a set of this year’s shortlist, (thank you FMcM Associates). I’ve now read three, DNF’d one, with one to go. Here are some thoughts…

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

This is the book I’ve yet to read. Although now out in paperback, I’ve pictured the hardback cover as this is the book I’d already bought for myself and has been enthusiastically reviewed by Rebecca and Paul and it was also shortlisted for the Wainwright and Bailie Gifford Prizes. I’ve been saving this one for when I can read it and absorb it at leisure. It sounds just wonderful.

Here Comes the Miracle by Anna Beecher

This was the DNF. Three generations of a family, from Edward, born before the war, who falls in love with another youth as a teenager, to Eleanor and her children Joe and Emily born in the late 1980s. When Joe is diagnosed with late stage 4 cancer, the family are thrown into turmoil and left praying for that miracle.

The story chops and changes between the four narrators, also chopping and changing tenses and person in the narrative as well as moving back and forth along the timeline. I found this made the narrative rather disjointed, and it felt like the author was trying so hard to make it more than it was through this. Sorry – DNF’d after around fifty pages.

My Darling From the Lions by Rachel Long

I felt sure that this poetry collection’s title had some significance – it comes from Psalm 35 in which God is asked to stop being an onlooker and to ‘rescue my soul from their destructions, my darling from the lions.’ Small hope of that!

These poems are very fresh and contemporary, reflecting coming of age as the narrator journeys from girlhood into adolescence and becomes a young woman. The poems have all the preoccupations of the young: sex, race, religion, friendship, relationships – real life is messy and the narrator tries to work her way through, with help (or hindrance) from her mum. Many of the poems are small dramas, strongly visual, telling it like it is – whether three lines or three pages long, you can imagine the complete scene.

I very much enjoyed this collection which is split into three thematic sections. It tickled me, that in the final short set, ‘Dolls’, there were poems about Ken and Barbie – and then one called ‘Black Princess! Black Princess!’ which imagines the hoops that a potential royal spouse has to go through to ensure they are fit to continue to the line. I loved the character of her mother who looms large in many poems, whether attempting to match-make as in ‘Red Hoover’, or about her afro wig in ‘Orb’.

The past two years have been won by poets, so although enjoyable, this collection is unlikely to win. (See what Cathy thought about these poems here, and Rebecca here.)

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. Picador paperback, 80 pages.

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

Being an Irish debut, there will be inevitable comparisons with Sally Rooney for Nolan, but I preferred this to Rooney’s first, Conversations With Friends. I also much preferred it to another Irish debut, This Happy by Niamh Campbell, which was intensely navel-gazing, as Nolan’s book is, but was too intense and repetitive and lacked plot.

Acts of Desperation is the story of a doomed relationship, between the narrator and Ciaran, whom she’d spotted from afar, and daringly approached…

Is it possible to love someone without knowing them, by sight?

How can I describe what happened to me without the word love? […]

Ciaran was not the first beautiful man I slept with, or the first man I had obsessive feelings for, but he was the first man I worshipped.

Ciaran is half-Danish and moved to Dublin to be closer to his Irish father after splitting up with his previous longterm girlfriend Freja. The narrator and her band of friends had been great party animals, great drinkers hungover all the time, not character traits that Ciaran likes. As their relationship develops, she finds herself dropping many of the vestiges of her previous life in her worship of Ciaran who, of course, is still really in love with Freja. The narrator is the gooseberry it seems, although sometimes it seems that Ciaran really does love her. She’ll settle for that – for now, doing whatever he needs to keep him. It can’t work long-term though, can it?

The narrative follows the relationship from beginning to end, over a couple of years, interspersed with short sections set seven years later, after she had moved to Athens and can look back with hindsight. At times the narrator can be hard to like – spikey, self-indulgent, obsessed – you want to knock some sense into her. At other times she will push your empathy buttons and you hope she’s not going to do anything she’ll really regret in her depression. Luckily her acts of desperation don’t go that far. The woman of the later timeline has done a lot of growing up, and realises that her time with Ciaran was no Eden (there is an apple episode in the story).

I will definitely be interested in what Megan Nolan writes next. I really enjoyed this novel, which has also been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. Vintage paperback, 281 pages.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

This slim book has already won the Costa First Novel Award and must be the favourite to win the Young Writer of the Year Award too. I very much enjoyed it and can see it winning for its use of the second person narrative, done well I thought.

The narrator is a photographer, who meets a young woman at a party who is going out with his mate. The pair strike up a platonic friendship, which deepens with time, but we know it won’t last like that. It takes most of the 150 pages for them to realise that they are in love, and that the intimacy they feared was nothing to be afraid of. It’s a slowburn romance, with periods of enforced separation between the pair while she returns to her studies in Dublin.

Alongside the main relationship theme, the narrator tells us about his family’s roots in Ghana. Also the experiences that shape his life as a young black man in London which include stop and search and being witness to gang violence, he struggles with his emotions in this respect and these parts of the book are probably as, if not more, important than the love story. He loves black music, literature and film, the novella is peppered with references. In particular he is more than a little obsessed with Zadie Smith’s novel N-W (reviewed here) and there is a resonance with the story of Felix and Anna in her novel.

The book is set in South East London: the narrator lives in Bellingham, Lewisham, she four miles north in Deptford near the bottom of the Isle of Dogs. As a SE Londoner (just) myself, there’s a definite feel to the geography of the area that I recognise, and that added something for me. Additionally the SE gives an another nod to Smith’s opposite, the NW.

I liked the way that Nelson’s use of the second person narratives parallels his protagonist’s job as a photographer, both documenting and observing. I loved the beauty and tenderness of his writing about their relationship, again the second person allows neither to be named.

Two favourite quotes:

She asked you to take her portrait. You placed her against the brickwork fencing her balcony and waited for both of you to relax. Your hands shook as she handed you her vulnerability, and you struggled to focus the lens on her features. When the contact sheet returns, the grid of pictures resemble a tussle; two people wrestling with how they feel about one another. The face does not lie.

Faith is turning off the light and trusting the other person will not murder you in your sleep.

Rebecca and Cathy weren’t totally convinced by this novella, Jacqui loved it, Liz found it powerful. Me, I just loved it.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. Viking paperback, 146 pages.

21 thoughts on “Reading the Sunday Times Young Writer Award Shortlist

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I loved Open Water as well and would like it to win, although I should say that of the rest of the shortlist I have only read Rachel Long (and heard her read at a poetry event).

  2. A Life in Books says:

    I’ve yet to get around to any of the shortlisted titles but the two I’m most looking forward to are Open Water and Acts of Desperation so I’m pleased to see you rate both. I’d have loved to attend the event but already have an arrangement. It would be lovely to meet up again. Maybe next year

  3. Anokatony says:

    I have read one of the five, ‘Acts of Desperation’ by Megan Nolan, which I thought was quite good.
    Have you heard of ‘Sterling Karat Gold’ by Isabel Waidner, winner of the Goldsmiths Prize? I DNFed it but am considering giving it another chance.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That one had passed me by – just went for a look but not sure… I like the sound of her latest more. Not an author I’ve ever read.

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    Thanks for the links to my reviews. (We gave up on the Beecher at about the same point! I’m rather baffled as to why the judges thought it worth shortlisting. The other four would have made a fine set.) I’ve just finished Acts of Desperation today and enjoyed it much more than I expected to. I’ll review it this week.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m sure I read somewhere that they called the Beecher in even. One of the judges must have loved it. There are more judges this year six instead of the usual 3 or 4 too, with no poets or non-fiction writers among the non-journalists.

  5. JacquiWine says:

    I’m so pleased that you loved Open Water, Annabel! The use of the second-person narrative really adds to the sense of intimacy in Nelson’s prose – ‘tenderness’ is exactly the right way of capturing it. I’m crossing my fingers for the win.

  6. Liz Dexter says:

    Thanks for the link – I did enjoy the setting of Open Water, too, I remember! I am waiting to read the Cal Flynn though I don’t even have it yet. It’s the one that intrigues me most from this list.

  7. Florence @ OffBeatBooks says:

    Wonderful post! It’s great to see such a variety of books shortlisted. There are many titles here that I want to read, especially Islands of Abandonment and Open Water so I’m really pleased that you enjoyed them 📚❤️ X x x

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