It was announced on Thursday that Sarah Howe has won this year’s Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award for her first collection of poetry ‘Loop of Jade’ which explores her dual British-Chinese heritage.
The prize recognises the best literary work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish writer aged 35 and under, with £5,000 awarded to the winner for outstanding literary merit and I was lucky enough to attend the award ceremony at the London Library on Thursday. It was a great opportunity to visit one of the capital’s most iconic libraries, especially given that life membership costs in the region of £20,000 if you’re under 30 which is, unfortunately, slightly out of my price range.
Announcing Howe as the winner, award judge and literary editor of The Sunday Times Andrew Holgate said: “The judges were unanimous in their choice of the winner. From the strongest of shortlists, they selected Loop of Jade as a work of astonishing originality, depth and scope.” With Andrew McMillan winning the Guardian First Book Award recently, it’s encouraging to see poetry being recognised by literary prizes and, hopefully, general readers everywhere.
I also went to Foyles Charing Cross bookshop on Monday 23rd November to see three previous winners and three of this year’s shortlisted authors in conversation with The Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate. Helen Simpson won the first ever Young Writer of the Year Award in 1991 for her first collection of short stories ‘Four Bare Legs in a Bed’ and has since gone on to publish five more collections at five-year intervals. Andrew Cowan won in 1995 for his novel ‘Pig’ while Adam Foulds is one of the most recent winners in 2008 for his novel ‘The Truth about These Strange Times’. It was clear that winning the award had meant a great deal to all of them, with Simpson saying it had given her the confidence to tell her publisher that she wasn’t going to write a novel despite short stories being far less commercial.
Much of the conversation focused on the value of creative writing programmes for young writers. As a graduate and now Director of the Creative Writing programme at UEA, Cowan emphasised the need to be open to input and criticism from others and to be prepared to share unpolished work in order to learn. Foulds described his time at UEA as a place where he was able to experiment with short stories and poetry. However, Simpson had a very different experience, having started her career without the internet, creative writing courses and fewer networking opportunities. Their advice for young writers? Helen Simpson: get used to your own company. Andrew Cowan: expect it to be hard with your achievements falling short of your ambitions but don’t give up. Adam Foulds: be generous and kind to yourself and surround yourself with people who do the same. Oh, and switch off your phone.
This week, I have been reading two of the shortlisted novels starting with The Shore by Sara Taylor. Spanning from the 19th to the 22nd century and focusing on female characters, it’s a collection of thirteen interlinked short stories about different generations of two families living on three islands off the Atlantic coast of Virginia. I’d wondered before reading ‘The Shore’ if it could really be called a “novel” given that the stories flit back and forth over several centuries. My only other experience of reading interlinked stories was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell which I didn’t really get on with but I much preferred ‘The Shore’ with the stories gradually revealing secrets to create a central narrative. Taylor spoke at the Foyles event about how important the three islands were for the structure of the book and how the landscape of the coast of Virginia became more significant to her once she had made the decision to move to the UK to study for her Master’s degree and not come back.
Taylor’s prose is as striking as the seashell cover design of the UK hardback edition of ‘The Shore’. There is a large cast of characters – the family tree at the front of the book is essential for following what’s going on – and a number of harrowing scenes of violence. Although I was less keen on the final chapter depicting a post-apocalyptic future, overall, ‘The Shore’ is a highly ambitious and truly original novel and although I very rarely reread books, ‘The Shore’ is one I may well come back to in the future.
I started reading The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson after the award ceremony on Thursday and have just finished it today. Set in Berlin in 1946, Kasper Meier, a one-eyed gay man in his fifties, is blackmailed into helping Eva Hirsch find a British pilot she is searching for which draws him into a complex web of betrayals and lies. Fergusson has spoken at the events about how he wanted to write something “plotty” (officially my new favourite word) but also “literary” and he has definitely succeeded in achieving this with his debut novel. Fans of Sarah Waters (who happens to be one of this year’s judges) would definitely enjoy ‘The Spring of Kasper Meier’ with its skilful blend of literary writing, gripping plot, original characters and vividly described historical setting. However, it looks like we’ll have to wait until at least summer 2017 for the next book which feels like a very long way away right now.
I’ll be reviewing ‘Loop of Jade’ by Sarah Howe and the other shortlisted novel ‘The Year of the Runaways’ by Sunjeev Sahota towards the end of the year. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the books and meeting the authors and other bloggers at events over the last few weeks and it’s fantastic to see the award being reintroduced for new generations of young writers. Many congratulations to Sarah Howe for winning this year’s prize!