Sponsored by the Sunday Times and literary agency Peters Fraser & Dunlop, the Young Writer of the Year Award recognises the best literary work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish writer aged between 18 and 35, with £5,000 awarded to the winner for outstanding literary merit. Following a hiatus since 2009, it was relaunched last year and won by Sarah Howe for her poetry collection ‘Loop of Jade’.
I went to a bloggers reception at the Groucho Club last month and have recently read the four shortlisted books which are:
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is probably the best known book on the shortlist and has already won the Books Are My Bag fiction award and the International Dylan Thomas Award. Described as a “prose poem” or “part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on bereavement”, it tells the story of a recently widowed Ted Hughes scholar bringing up his two young sons on his own. They are all coming to terms with their loss with the help of Crow, a large bird who refuses to leave the house until he is no longer needed. It is based on Porter’s experience of losing his father at the age of six and inspired by Hughes’s poetry collection ‘Crow’. I am not an expert on Ted Hughes so no doubt I will have missed the references to his work in the text but the popularity of ‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ shows how much the story itself resonates with so many readers far beyond those with intimate knowledge of the poems it alludes to.
Physical by Andrew McMillan is the only poetry collection on the shortlist and has already won the Guardian First Book Award, the Costa Poetry Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. It explores themes of masculinity, male love and male friendship and like Sarah Howe’s winning collection last year, the inspiration behind the poems is based on deeply personal experience and the imagery is often powerful and intense. Hearing McMillan read out loud at the bloggers event helped give me a sense of the rhythm of his poems especially given that he has written all of them without conventional punctuation.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass is a collection of twelve short stories which was chosen as the shadow panel winner. The settings and characters are extremely diverse but the unifying theme across the collection is alienation. The absence of dialogue in the stories is notable as is the influence of philosophy which Greengrass studied at Cambridge. Greengrass read ‘Some Kind of Safety’ at the bloggers event which she said was inspired by a visit to a “secret” nuclear bunker in Essex while my personal favourites include ‘The Politics of Minor Resistance’ set in a call centre and ‘All the Other Jobs’ both of which brilliantly capture the wanderings of the mind in mundane situations.
The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood is the only novel on the shortlist which tells the story of Elspeth Conroy, also known as Knell, a celebrated Scottish painter from a working class background who fled the art scene in 1960s London to live in a remote island community with other artists off the coast of Istanbul. However, the arrival of seventeen-year-old Fullerton proves to be disruptive and gradually leads to secrets from her past being revealed. Wood’s second book is an absorbing and evocative exploration of the creative process and I really enjoyed his style of prose which is richly descriptive and inventive without being over-the-top. I finished reading ‘The Ecliptic’ on Thursday and while I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the ending, I really admire its boldness. I will be seeking out Wood’s first novel ‘The Bellwether Revivals’ which also focuses on themes surrounding creativity.
I went to the award ceremony at the London Library on Thursday where it was announced that ‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ by Max Porter had won the prize with previous winner Sarah Howe arriving just in the nick of time to present the award to him. It was also announced that next year’s award will be run in association with the University of Warwick who will offer a 10-week residency to the winner and will run a host of other events and initiatives to support the shortlisted writers.
It’s fantastic to see this recently resurrected prize produce another brilliant shortlist with some interesting plans in the pipeline which will offer strong support for future young writers. Porter, McMillan, Greengrass and Wood all take risks and push boundaries in terms of scope, form and use of language in their work and I look forward to seeing what all four of them go on to write next. Have you read any of this year’s shortlisted books?