Well, I've got some news...
Over the past month, with four other bloggers - Anne Cater of Random Things Though My Letterbox, Linda Hill of Linda's Book Bag, Clare Reynolds of Years Of Reading Selfishly and Phoebe Williams, The Brixton Bookworm - I have been reading and reviewing the nominated books for The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. We are the Shadow Panel, assembled to give a bloggy view on the shortlist. before the judges proper announce the official winner.
I found the standard of each dauntingly high, and they are also very different books.
Last Thursday, the shadow panellists met to decide our winner. It was all done in the offices of FMcM Associates, which - to make things even more bookish - turns out to be near King's Cross Station, through a REALLY small, scruffy door set in a larger gate - and then through a hidden yard and up a ladder. All very Harry Potter.
We were hosted by the incredibly efficient and friendly Robert Greer, who made sure tea, coffee and biscuits flowed, and we were kept on task by Houman Barekat whose main aim was I think to ensure we did, actually, choose a single winner (no Booker shenanigans here, thank you very much). He excelled at this - as well as keeping us to time and on task (put a group of bloggers together unmoderated and you know what'll happen).
But - despite the biscuits and Houman's gentle guidance - it was, as I have said, HARD. The books on the shortlist are ALL GOOD.
VERY GOOD. Here, as a reminder, they are - in the order we discussed them, that is, alphabetically by author.
The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) has been described as "an extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet. The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish."
I reviewed The Perseverance here. It is a fascinating and enlightening collection of poems with a very strong voice throughout, staking a claim against ensure and marginalisation. It deserves to be widely read.
You can buy The Perseverance from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.
salt slow by Julie Armfield (Picador) is a "brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, [in which] Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones.
The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, salt slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely."
These are stories that centre young women's experiences, that take the time to express their feelings, indeed to personify those feelings. They have an eerie sense of being at the same time in the mundane world and also somewhere quite different - with the combination being totally compatible, totally to be expected, something to be lived with and through. Taken together this is a strong collection, and a joy to read.
My review of salt slow is here. You can buy salt slow from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.
Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (fleet) is "A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity."
I found the book's playfulness with form a joy to read, perfectly matching the subject and themes by depicting the gaps and crossovers between languages, cultures and experiences. It documents some dark experiences and times, as well as the joy of family life lived well, and made excellent reading.
My review is here. You can buy Stubborn Archivist from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.
The fourth book on the shortlist was Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), introduced thus: 'The letter was in the Blue Room - her grandfather’s painting studio, where Eva spent the happier days of her childhood. After his death, she is the one responsible for his legacy - a legacy threatened by the letter she finds. It is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have found the testimony her grandfather gave after surviving the labour camps in Austria. And, since he was one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century artists, they want to exhibit it. But Joseph Silk - leaving behind József Zyyad - remade himself long ago. As Eva begins to uncover the truth, she understands the trauma, and the lies, that have haunted her family. She will unravel what happened to József and his brother, who came to England as refugees. One never spoke of his past - the other couldn’t let it go. Their story - and that of the woman they both loved - is in her hands. Revealing it would change her grandfather’s hard- won identity. But it could also change the tide of history. This testament can lend words to wordless grief, and teach her how to live."
For me, Testament is a book that beautifully masters what it is trying to say, shows what has been and what the consequences can be. I loved the characters in this book, their flaws and their struggles, and felt that it truly honoured those who suffered and those who inherited aspects of that suffering. It's also a book which has, because it must have, warnings for us, warning not to forget, warnings to be on guard, to keep watch.
My review is here. You can buy Testament from your local bookshop, from Hive Books, Waterstones or Amazon.
So - how could we compare these books? There were so many differences and similarities. A book of poems, focusing very strongly on identity and family. Short stories making visible and real the dislocations and tensions of modern life. A novel about family and belonging and not belonging, often veering into the poetic and also based firmly in identity. A novel about family lost and regained, survival and consequences and, again, identity lost, captured, remoulded.
The only way, we felt, was to take them as books. How far did each achieve what it set out to do? Did it make sense to compare it to other books of the same type or was it too distinctive for that to work? What did we think about the language? We all had different reading experiences and focusses and this was useful in putting the books in context. We had also read each others' reviews and sometimes found that another panel member our own feelings into words better than we could ourselves. So we gave our views, in turn, on each book, after which Houman summed up. Then, we had a general discussion after which we voted on the winner.
The books are, as I have said, all of a very high standard and any one of them would have been a worthy winner, but at the end of our fiendish judging process we decided that the winning book for the 2019 Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award would be...
The panel felt that the stories in this collection made beautiful use of language, with many sentences and phrases jumping right off the page. Julia Armfield has written stories that manage to have the timeless, otherworldly quality of fairytales, while also being rooted in a very recognisably modern world with recognisable problems and issues (insomnia, parental divorce, male harassment of women). Each story is its own little mystery, and the resolutions almost all come as surprises - but even where they don't, Armfield leaves the reader smiling or nodding at how things turn out.
I'd like to offer Julia congratulations on her shadow win, and to wish her - and Raymond, Yara and Kim - the best of luck with the Young Writer of the Year Award proper.
And I'd urge you to read the books - all of them - which have been wonderfully enticing read for me in these recent dark autumn weeks.
For the official announcement of the shadow result with more comments on salt slow, see here.
Finally - here we shadow panellists are, after our decision. It's been a wonderful couple of months and the process has introduced me to a fine selection of books I might otherwise not have known, as well as giving the opportunity to work with some inspirational bloggers. Many thanks to Maddy Pickard for looking after us, to Houman for helping us choose our winner, and to Robert for his support. And especially to the four authors for their brilliant and inspirational writing - I'm looking forward to seeing what they publish next!