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Young Writer of the Year Award 2020: Shortlist Reviews and Predictions

Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s panelists, especially blogging friend Marina Sofia, to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to hearing who they choose as their shadow panel winner on December 3rd and then attending the virtual prize ceremony on December 10th.

At the time of the shortlisting, I happened to have already read Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan and was halfway through Catherine Cho’s memoir Inferno. I got the poetry collection Surge by Jay Bernard out from the library to have another go (after DNFing it last year), and the kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a poetry collection and a novel, so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations. Here are my brief thoughts on all five nominees.

 

Surge by Jay Bernard (2019)

As a writer-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, a research centre for radical Black history, in 2016, Bernard investigated the New Cross Massacre, a fire that killed 13 young people in 1981. In 2017, the tragedy found a horrific echo in the Grenfell Tower fire, which left 72 dead. This debut poetry collection bridges that quarter-century through protest poems from various perspectives, giving voice to victims and their family members and exploring the interplay between race, sexuality and violence. Patois comes in at several points, most notably in “Songbook.” I especially liked “Peg” and “Pride,” and the indictment of government indifference in “Blank”: “It-has-nothing-to-do-with-us today issued this statement: / those involved have defended their actions and been … acquitted / retired with full pay”. On the whole, I found it difficult to fully engage with this collection, but I am reliably informed that Bernard’s protest poems have more impact when performed aloud.

Readalikes: In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller, A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson and Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

My rating:

 

Inferno by Catherine Cho (2020)

Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son. She and her husband had returned to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration at her in-laws’ home. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced cameras were watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in a hospital emergency room, followed by a mental health ward. Cho alternates between her time in the mental hospital and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown, weaving in her family history and Korean sayings and legends. Twelve days: That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory. She captures extremes of suffering and joy in this vivid account. (Reviewed in full here.)

Readalikes: An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame and Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong

My rating:

 

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan (2020)

At 22, Ava leaves Dublin to teach English as a foreign language to wealthy preteens in Hong Kong and soon comes to a convenient arrangement with her aloof banker friend, Julian, who lets her live with him without paying rent and buys her whatever she wants. They have sex, yes, but he’s not her boyfriend per se, so when he’s transferred to London for six months, there’s no worry about hard feelings when her new friendship with Edith Zhang turns romantic. It gets a little more complicated, though, when Julian returns and she has to explain these relationships to her two partners and to herself. On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like it would be an interesting plot, and the hook-up culture couldn’t be more foreign to me. But with Ava Dolan has created a funny, deadpan voice that carries the entire novel. I loved the psychological insight, the playfulness with language, and the zingy one-liners (“I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat”). (Reviewed in full here.)

Readalikes: Besotted by Melissa Duclos and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

My rating:

 

Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (2020)

In the title poem, the arboreal fungus from the cover serves as “a bright, ancestral messenger // bursting through from one realm to another” like “the cones of God, the Pentecostal flame”. This debut collection is alive with striking imagery that draws links between the natural and the supernatural. Sex and grief, two major themes, are silhouetted against the backdrop of nature. Fields and forests are loci of meditation and epiphany, but also of clandestine encounters between men: “I came back often, // year on year, kneeling and being knelt for / in acts of secret worship, and now / each woodland smells quietly of sex”. Hewitt recalls travels to Berlin and Sweden, and charts his father’s rapid decline and death from an advanced cancer. A central section of translations of the middle-Irish legend “Buile Suibhne” is less memorable than the gorgeous portraits of flora and fauna and the moving words dedicated to the poet’s father: “You are not leaving, I know, // but shifting into image – my head / already is haunted with you” and “In this world, I believe, / there is nothing lost, only translated”.

Readalikes: Physical by Andrew McMillan and If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton

My rating:

 

Nightingale by Marina Kemp (2020)

Marguerite Demers, a 24-year-old nurse, has escaped Paris to be a live-in carer for elderly Jérôme Lanvier in southern France. From the start, she senses she’s out of place here – “She felt, as always in this village, that she was being observed”. She strikes up a friendship with a fellow outsider, an Iranian émigrée named Suki, who, in this story set in 2002, stands out for wearing a hijab. Everyone knows everyone here, and everyone has history with everyone else – flirtations, feuds, affairs, and more. Brigitte Brochon, unhappily married to a local farmer, predicts Marguerite will be just like the previous nurses who failed to hack it in service to the curmudgeonly Monsieur Lanvier. But Marguerite sticks up for herself and, though plagued by traumatic memories, makes her own bid for happiness. The novel deals sensitively with topics like bisexuality, euthanasia, and family estrangement, but the French provincial setting and fairly melodramatic plot struck me as old-fashioned. Still, the writing is strong enough to keep an eye out for what Kemp writes next. (U.S. title: Marguerite.)

Readalikes: French-set novels by Joanne Harris and Rose Tremain; The Hoarder by Jess Kidd

My rating:

 

General thoughts:

After last year’s unexpected winner – Raymond Antrobus for his poetry collection The Perseverance – I would have said that it’s time for a novel by a woman to win. However, I feel like a Dolan win would be too much of a repeat of 2017’s win (for Sally Rooney), and Kemp’s debut novel isn’t quite up to scratch. Much as I enjoyed Inferno, I can’t see it winning over these judges (three of whom are novelists: Kit de Waal, Sebastian Faulks and Tessa Hadley), though it would be suited to the Wellcome Book Prize if that comes back in 2021. So, to my surprise, I think it’s going to be another year for poetry.

I’ve been following the shadow panel’s thoughts via Marina’s blog and the others’ Instagram accounts and it looks like they are united in their admiration for the poetry collections, particularly the Hewitt. That would be my preference, too: I respond better to theme and style in poetry (Hewitt) than to voice and message (Bernard). However, I think that in 2020 the Times may try to trade its rather fusty image for something more woke, bearing in mind the Black Lives Matter significance and the unprecedented presence of a nonbinary author.

 

My predictions:

Shadow panel winner: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

Official winner: Surge by Jay Bernard

 

Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?

Young Writer of the Year Award: Shortlist Reviews and Predictions

Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me. I’m pleased for this year’s shadow panelists, a couple of whom are blogging friends (one I’ve met IRL), to have had the same opportunity, and I look forward to attending the prize ceremony at the London Library on December 5th.

 

I happened to have already read two of the shortlisted titles, the poetry collection The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus and the debut novel Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, which was one of my specific wishes/predictions. The kind folk of FMcM Associates sent me the other two shortlisted books, a short story collection and another debut novel, for blog reviews so that I could follow along with the shadow panel’s deliberations.

 

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield (2019)

These nine short stories are steeped in myth and magic, but often have a realistic shell. Only gradually do the fantastical or dystopian elements emerge, with the final paragraph delivering a delicious surprise. For instance, the narrator of “Mantis” attends a Catholic girls’ school and is caught up in a typical cycle of self-loathing and obsessing over boys. It’s only at the very end that we realize her extreme skin condition is actually a metamorphosis that enables her to protect herself. The settings are split between the city and the seaside; the perspective is divided almost perfectly down the middle between the first and third person. The body is a site of transformation, or a source of grotesque relics, as in “The Collectables,” in which a PhD student starts amassing body parts she could only have acquired via grave-robbing.

Two favorites for me were “Formerly Feral,” in which a 13-year-old girl acquires a wolf as a stepsister and increasingly starts to resemble her; and the final, title story, a post-apocalyptic one in which a man and a pregnant woman are alone in a fishing boat, floating above a drowned world and living as if outside of time. This one is really rather terrifying. I also liked “Cassandra After,” in which a dead girlfriend comes back – it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, which I’m currently reading for #MARM. “Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax,” about a girl group experiencing Beatles-level fandom on a tour of the UK, felt like the odd one out to me in this collection.

Armfield’s prose is punchy, with invented verbs and condensed descriptions that just plain work: “Jenny had taken to poltergeisting round the house”; “skin like fork-clawed cottage cheese,” “the lobster shells gleam a slick vermilion” and “The sky is gory with stars.” There’s no shortage of feminist fantasy stories out there nowadays – Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado and Karen Russell are just a few others working in this vein – but the writing in Salt Slow really grabbed me even when the plots didn’t. I’ll be following Armfield’s career with interest.

 

Testament by Kim Sherwood (2018)

Eva Butler is a 24-year-old MA student specializing in documentary filmmaking. She is a live-in carer for her grandfather, the painter Joseph Silk (real name: József Zyyad), in his Fitzroy Park home. When Silk dies early on in the book, she realizes that she knows next to nothing about his past in Hungary. Learning that he wrote a testament about his Second World War experiences for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, she goes at once to read it and is distressed at what she finds. With the help of Felix, the museum’s curator, who did his PhD on Silk’s work, she travels to Budapest to track down the truth about her family.

Sherwood alternates between Eva’s quest and a recreation of József’s time in wartorn Europe. Cleverly, she renders the past sections more immediate by writing them in the present tense, whereas Eva’s first-person narrative is in the past tense. Although József escaped the worst of the Holocaust by being sentenced to forced labor instead of going to a concentration camp, his brother László and their friend Zuzka were in Theresienstadt, so readers get a more complete picture of the Jewish experience at the time. All three wind up in the Lake District after the war, rebuilding their lives and making decisions that will affect future generations.

It’s almost impossible to write anything new about the Holocaust these days, and overfamiliarity was certainly a roadblock for me here. I was especially reminded of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, what with its focus on the Hungarian Jewish experience. However, I did appreciate the way Sherwood draws on her family history – her grandmother is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor – to consider how trauma still affects the second and third generation. This certainly doesn’t feel like a debut novel. It’s highly readable, and the emotional power of the story cannot be denied. The Young Writer of the Year Award is great for highlighting books that risk being overlooked: in a year dominated by The Testaments, poor Testament was otherwise likely to sink without notice.

Note: “Testament” is also the title of the poem written by Sherwood’s great-grandfather that she recited at her grandfather’s funeral – just as Eva does in the novel. It opens this Telegraph essay (paywalled, but reprinted in the paperback of Testament) that Sherwood wrote about her family history.

 

General thoughts and predictions:

Any of these books would be a worthy winner. However, as Raymond Antrobus has already won this year’s £30,000 Rathbones Folio Prize as well as the 2018 Geoffrey Dearmer Award from the Poetry Society, The Perseverance has had sufficient recognition – plus it’s a woman’s turn. Testament is accomplished, and likely to hold the widest appeal, but it strikes me as the safe choice. Salt Slow would be an edgier selection, and feels quite timely and fresh. But Stubborn Archivist has stuck with me since I reviewed it in March. I called it “Knausgaard for the Sally Rooney generation” and wrote that “the last book to have struck me as truly ‘novel’ in the same way was Lincoln in the Bardo.” From a glance at the shadow panel’s reviews thus far, I fear it may prove too divisive for them, though.

Based on my gut instincts and a bit of canny thinking about the shadow panelists and judges, here are my predictions:

Shadow Panel:

  • What they will pick: Testament [but they might surprise me and go with Salt Slow or Stubborn Archivist]
  • What they should pick: Salt Slow

Official Judging Panel:

  • What they will pick: Stubborn Archivist [but they might surprise me and go with Salt Slow]
  • What they should pick: Stubborn Archivist

I understand that the shadow panel is meeting today for their in-person deliberations. I wish them luck! Their pick will be announced on the 28th. I’ll be intrigued to see which book they select, and how it compares with the official winner on December 5th.

 

Have you read anything from this year’s shortlist?