I have been following the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award since its relaunch in 2015 and shadowed the prize in 2017. This year’s shortlist was announced on Sunday 1st November and consists of two poetry collections, two novels and one memoir. The titles are:
Surge by Jay Bernard
Inferno by Catherine Cho
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
The poetry collections include Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt which draws on Hewitt’s time in Sweden, a translation of the Irish legend of Buile Suibhne, and his father’s terminal illness. Rooted in the natural world, these poems are very immersive, and deal with themes of identity and loss. Surge by Jay Bernard has already been shortlisted for several other major awards (Costa, Forward, Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot). It focuses on the New Cross house fire in south-east London in January 1981 which killed 13 black teenagers who were celebrating a birthday party. The cause has never been fully established but it is possible that the fire was started deliberately in a racist attack. In poems such as ‘Sentence’, Bernard explores parallels between the New Cross fire and the grief surrounding more recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush scandal. I don’t read poetry very often, but I could see ‘Surge’ being a potential winner with its thoughtful exploration of a powerful central theme.
I already had my eye on Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan which has been compared to the work of Sally Rooney who won the Young Writer of the Year Award in 2017. 22-year-old Ava moves from Dublin to Hong Kong and gets a job at a school teaching English as a foreign language. She begins a casual relationship with Julian, a banker who allows her to live at his apartment rent-free. When Julian is transferred to London for six months, Ava’s friendship with Edith develops into romance, leaving Ava at a crossroads when Julian returns to Hong Kong. The dry and deadpan wit of Dolan’s writing has been much commented on and is excellent. It meant I appreciated ‘Exciting Times’ much more on a sentence-by-sentence level, whereas in the bigger picture sense, the overarching plot may not have held my interest in someone else’s hands. Overall, the tone was central to my enjoyment of this entertaining debut novel.
Nightingale by Marina Kemp is set in rural France when a young Parisian woman from a privileged background, Marguerite Demers, takes up a new job as a live-in nurse in the sleepy village of Saint-Sulpice. She cares for Jerome Lanvier, a bedridden and cantankerous old man whose three sons are more or less estranged from him. The locals are mostly hostile and don’t quite know what to make of Marguerite, and the mystery and tension surrounding the reasons for her arrival in the village builds very nicely. On the face of it, ‘Nightingale’ is a fairly slow and quiet novel, yet it is also very unsettling and dark in places too. An impressive debut.
Of the five titles on the shortlist, I think the book that will really stay with me is Inferno by Catherine Cho, a memoir detailing the author’s experience of stress-induced post-partum psychosis which affects 1-2 in 1,000 women. Post-partum psychosis is rare, but Cho’s experience of psychosis was particularly unusual in that it occurred several weeks after the birth of her son, Cato, in late 2017 rather than immediately afterwards. Cho and her husband, James, are Korean-American and live in London where Cho works in publishing. When Cato was two months old, they travelled to the United States so their families could meet their son in time for the traditional 100-day celebration. The book is split into two narratives which run in parallel: one follows Cho’s experience of her time as a patient on a mental health ward, while the other looks back at her life including her childhood in Kentucky, escaping an abusive relationship in Hong Kong, meeting her husband, and the weeks leading up to her hospitalisation during which she believed cameras were watching them and Cato had “devil’s eyes”. This is an eye-opening account of a terrifying experience and shines a light on serious mental illness in the context of new motherhood which is still rarely discussed. As Cho says, “I was so preoccupied with the idea of losing my body, it had never occurred to me that I might lose my mind” (p.7).
Many thanks to FMcM Associates for sending review copies of the shortlist. The winner will be announced in a digital ceremony on 10th December. Have you read any of the shortlisted books?