Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Book of Hours by Letty McHugh

The Barbellion Prize shortlist, announced yesterday, consists of the short story collection Polluted Sex and the novel Chouette, both of which I’m still keen to read; and two nonfiction works, Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed last year, and Letty McHugh’s hybrid memoir, Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul.

I’m saving up tiny joys the way a bear fattens up for the coming winter


A patchwork quilt of ordinary leftover happiness

to keep me warm through the darkest part of the night.

In medieval times, a book of hours was a devotional book that set out the day’s prayers. Usually an illuminated manuscript, it was a precious object for laypeople, and a way of marking time. For Letty McHugh, a Yorkshire-based visual artist who lives with chronic pain and illness, this book of hours is many things: a journal, a scrapbook, an enquiry into the monastic impulse, and an interrogation of the potential meanings of physical suffering.

In April 2020, McHugh experienced a relapse of MS so bad she had to move back in with her parents and was sleeping 20 hours a day. Her sphere had contracted to a single room. If only, she wished, there was “something to concentrate on that wasn’t my unravelling body or the unravelling world.” A Catholic upbringing and childhood holidays in Northumberland made her think about the early Christian hermits and saints like Aidan, Cuthbert and Julian of Norwich who salvaged something from solitude, who out of the privations of monasticism made monuments of faith and, sometimes, written documents, too.

This was the inspiration behind her own book of hours, which intersperses poems and photographs of found objects (wildflowers, animal skulls, sea glass and shells) with biographical sketches of saints, short autobiographical essays about her childhood and career, and musings on faith and pain. Metaphors of magic and outer space contrast with the claustrophobia of “the illness place,” somewhere she knows she’ll return to again and again. Although she knows she will never be perfectly holy or perfectly productive, she is encouraged to know that even those with confined lives (such as Emily Dickinson) can have a rich inner existence. While she resists the desire for a cure, or for a simple meaning to suffering, she bears witness to the fact that creativity can emerge in spite of everything.

I enjoyed spending time with this meticulously crafted and meditative work that engages with the present moment but also the eternal. It’s perfect onward reading for fans of the inaugural Barbellion Prize winner, Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, and A Still Life by Josie George, a shortlistee from last year.

Book of Hours was self-published with assistance from Disability Arts Online. You can buy a signed copy of the handmade book from her Etsy shop, or read the text for free here.

With thanks to Letty McHugh for sending a free e-copy for review.


This year’s Barbellion Prize judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The winner will be announced in February.

12 responses

  1. Oh, this sounds marvelous, and a really worthy shortlistee!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m so pleased for her!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds interesting, especially having just read about Julian. Is it in verse? I wasn’t sure how representative the quote at the top was.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’d like the Julian and Northumberland material. There are poems dotted through, but I’d say at least 80% of the book is prose.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds a precious thing to have written as well as delightful to read. In a way, those of us who can may gain from a similar exercise for those times when we’re feeling low. It’s a bit like a two-dimensional memory box, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, journaling or looking through beloved photos or objects can be a real mood booster.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This book looks a delight and worthy entry to the short list. It’s probably not something I’d buy though. It’s a shame it’s privately published (although it will have given her greater editorial control) as it will mean it’s unlikely tom get very wide circulation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s very generously made the full text available for free online. A prize listing like this, and especially a win, might get the book enough attention for a wider publication.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. True. I had a quick go at looking online, but it seems a bit complicated, so I’ll try again later.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ironically, I have a print copy of Golem Girl but the print is so small I’m struggling to read it with my poor eyesight (corrected with glasses of course but you can only do so much).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, you must have the paperback. That is always a challenge.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know what, I’ve got an Amazon voucher from my in-laws and the e-book was only £3.99 so I’ve just bought it.


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