Young Writer of the Year Award 2021 Shortlist: Reactions and Prediction
Being on the shadow panel for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award was a bookish highlight of 2017 for me and, looking back, still one of the best things I’ve achieved in my time as a book blogger. Each year I eagerly keep an eye out for the award shortlist to see how many I’ve read and who I think the judges will choose as the winner. The prize has a higher profile and cash fund this year thanks to new sponsorship from the Charlotte Aitken Trust and partnership with Waterstones.
Last May I started a list of books and authors I expected would be eligible, and continued updating it throughout the year. I was certainly expecting Open Water to make the cut, but I had a lot of other wishes that didn’t come true, particularly Charlie Gilmour for Featherhood, Daisy Johnson for Sisters, Will McPhail for In, Merlin Sheldrake for Entangled Life, and Eley Williams for The Liar’s Dictionary.
Yesterday the five nominees – three debut novels, one work of nonfiction, and one poetry collection – were announced in the Sunday Times and on the website. I happen to have already read three of them. I was vaguely interested in Megan Nolan’s novel already so will get it out from the library to read soon; I had not heard of Anna Beecher’s at all but would be willing to read a review copy if one came my way.
Here Comes the Miracle by Anna Beecher: Sounds potentially mawkish in a Jodi Picoult or Sarah Winman way. Publisher’s blurb: “It begins with a miracle: a baby born too small and too early, but defiantly alive. This is Joe. Decades before, another miracle. In a patch of nettle-infested wilderness, a seventeen-year-old boy falls in love with his best friend, Jack. This is Edward. Joe gains a sister, Emily. From the outset, her life is framed by his. She watches him grow into a young man who plays the violin magnificently and longs for a boyfriend. A young man who is ready to begin. Edward, after being separated from Jack, builds a life with Eleanor. They start a family and he finds himself a grandfather to Joe and Emily. When Joe is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Emily and the rest of the family are left waiting for a miracle.”
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: One of my top nonfiction books of 2021, but I’ll confess I hadn’t realized Flyn was eligible. (Now that I’m, ahem, a few years past the cutoff age myself, I can find it difficult to gauge the difference between early 30s and late 30s in appearance.) Flyn travels to neglected and derelict places, looking for the traces of human impact and noting how landscapes restore themselves – how life goes on without us. Places like a wasteland where there was once mining, nuclear exclusion zones, the depopulated city of Detroit, and areas that have been altered by natural disasters and conflict. The writing is literary and evocative, at times reminiscent of Peter Matthiessen’s. It’s a nature/travel book with a difference, and the poetic eye helps you to see things anew.
My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long: I read this when it was shortlisted for last year’s Costa Awards and reviewed it when it was shortlisted for the Folio Prize. It’s had a lot of critical attention now, but wasn’t my cup of tea. Race, sex, and religion come into play, but the focus is on memories of coming of age, with the voice sometimes a girl’s and sometimes a grown woman’s. Her course veers between innocence and hazard. She must make her way beyond the world’s either/or distinctions and figure out how to be multiple people at once (biracial, bisexual). Her Black mother is a forceful presence; “Red Hoover” is a funny account of trying to date a Nigerian man to please her mother. Much of the rest of the book failed to click with me, but the experience of poetry is so subjective that I find it hard to give any specific reasons why that’s the case.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson: I always enjoy the use of second person narration. It works pretty well in this love story between two young Black British people in South London. The title is a metaphor for the possibilities and fear of intimacy. The protagonist, a photographer, doesn’t know what to do with his anger about how young Black men are treated. I felt Nelson was a little heavy-handed in his treatment of this theme, though I did love that the pivotal scene is set in a barbershop, a place where men reveal more of themselves than usual – I was reminded of a terrific play I saw a few years ago, Barber Shop Chronicles. Ultimately, I wasn’t convinced that fiction was the right vehicle for this story, especially with all the references to other authors, from Hanif Abdurraqib to Zadie Smith (NW, in particular); I think a memoir with cultural criticism was what Nelson really intended. I’ll keep an eye out for him, though – with his next book he might truly find his voice.
Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan: Another debut from an Irish writer – heir to Sally Rooney? Publisher’s blurb: “In the first scene of this provocative gut-punch of a novel, our unnamed narrator meets a magnetic writer named Ciaran and falls, against her better judgment, completely in his power. After a brief, all-consuming romance he abruptly rejects her, sending her into a tailspin of jealous obsession and longing. … Part breathless confession, part lucid critique, Acts of Desperation renders a consciousness split between rebellion and submission, between escaping degradation and eroticizing it, between loving and being lovable. With unsettling, electric precision, Nolan dissects one of life’s most elusive mysteries: Why do we want what we want, and how do we want it?”
You can read more about these books and the judges’ reactions to them on the website. This year’s judges are authors Tahmima Anam, Sarah Moss, and Andrew O’Hagan; critic Claire Lowdon; and creative writing teacher Gonzalo C. Garcia. The chair, as always, is Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate.
Reasoning and Prediction
- Poetry has won the last two years in a row.
- Nelson has just won the Costa First Novel Award (though the judges chose Raymond Antrobus, at that time already a recipient of multiple major awards).
- We haven’t had a female winner since 2017, so it’s past time.
- We haven’t had a nonfiction winner since Adam Weymouth in 2018 for Kings of the Yukon.
So, I’d love for Cal Flyn to win for the excellent and timely Islands of Abandonment. She’s had a few nominations (the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Saltire Award, the Wainwright Prize) but not won anything, and richly deserves to.
I haven’t heard yet if there will be a shadow panel this year. Anyone got any intel on this? If it goes ahead in person this year, I’ll hope to attend the awards ceremony in London on 24 February. In any case, I’ll be looking out for the winner announcement.