Thoughts on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Shortlist

Next week, this year’s Shadow panel for the Sunday Times / Warwick University Young Writer of the Year Award will gather electronically to pick their winner from the five books chosen this year. While it is a shame that they can’t make the trip into London to meet in person to do it, I’m sure they’ll have a great zoom about it. Back in 2017, I was delighted to be asked to be in the Shadow Panel along with Rebecca, Claire, Eleanor and Dane; we also had five books instead of the usual four to consider. Ever since its inception, the Shadow Panel has chosen a different book to the judges – what will happen this year?

I was sent a set of this year’s shortlist to look at (thank you FMcM Associates). So far, I’ve only had time to read the two poetry books, so here are some thoughts on those and a few brief notes on the others…

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

This is such a strong collection of poems which I loved. There is a coherence to them that runs throughout the book, a spiritual closeness to nature that recognises its earthiness, boskiness, fecundity, decay and mystery. Trees, wild flowers, birds and moonlight dominate with an autumnal sense of getting ready for winter and spring rebirth. The themes may be similar, but each poem has a different aspect, from the folkloric ‘Dryad’ where a woman tree spirit watches over the men who meet in the woods, to the language of trees in ‘Oak Glossary’. A set of seven is inspired by the old Irish tale of Buile Suibhne, and the last poems in the collection are dedicated to the poet’s father who died in 2019. My particular favourite is one called ‘Evening poem’ which is set at dusk as the birds flock, then disperse and gradually stop singing. Lovely.

Surge by Jay Bernard

This poetry collection has already garnered a lot of attention, winning the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry and being shortlisted for the Costa and TS Eliot prizes last year. They are a response to two tragedies: firstly, the New Cross Fire in 1981, in which thirteen young black people died in a house fire at a birthday party and then the Grenfell Tower disaster. Jay Bernard describes the events and their effects on them as a queer black person in the introductory author’s note. On the page, I found these poems rather hard to read. They use a lot of patois and for me, it was hard to maintain the lyrical thrust while deciphering the language. However, there is no doubting the passion and need to document and bear witness behind them.

But, I went searching for a reading, and that gave a whole new perspective. Listen to Jay Bernard read some of their poems at the TS Eliot shortlist event here, hearing them sing ‘Songbook’ which literally tells the story of the night of the New Cross Fire moved me in a way the words on the page couldn’t.

… and the other three

Of the rest, I’m particularly keen to read Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times, about a young Irish woman making her way in Hong Kong. It’s particularly interesting to see a comic novel make a shortlist (I adore a good comic novel), and Susan really liked it, which augurs well. Catherine Cho’s account of postpartum psychosis, Inferno, sounds very grim, however the author came through it and it’s not all darkness. Rebecca described it as a ‘vivid’ read. Finally, there is Nightingale by Marina Kemp, which follows a young Parisian nurse relocating to the South of France as a live-in nurse to a old man who had been powerful and manipulative, now dying alone. I love a southern France setting, so I will read this novel later as it feels summery rather than wintery to me.

Have you read any of this prize’s shortlist?

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Shortlist

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks for the links, Annabel, both to my review and to the T S Eliot readings. I rarely read poetry but like the idea of listening to it, particularly as Surge sounds harder to grasp on the page.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was so good. Although I haven’t read the three non-poetry books yet, I would be delighted if it won.

  2. A Little Blog of Books says:

    I’ve just posted my thoughts on this year’s shortlist on my blog too. Inferno was definitely the stand-out for me – yes, it’s grim, but it ends with recovery and while I was aware that post-partum psychosis can occur, I’ve never read a detailed account of that sort of experience before, so it was definitely eye-opening for me.

  3. Rebecca Foster says:

    We had similar reactions to these two very different poetry collections. I think you’ll enjoy Exciting Times, and Inferno has enough of a literary style to it that the content isn’t too harrowing.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      We did. I loved the Surge readings though. Looking forward to (eventually) reading the other books.

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