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    The Desmond Elliott Prize - what's the best first novel?

    Published on 03/04/2014 by David Birkett

    The annual Desmond Elliott prize, for a debut novel published in the UK, announced its longlist today. Named in memory of, and run as a homage to, the famously flamboyant and charismatic literary agent and publisher, the prize carries a purse of £10,000 and looks to recognise fiction which

    ‘has a compelling narrative, arresting character, and which is both vividly written and confidently realised.’

    The longlist (which will be re-selected to a shortlist in May and a winner in June) comprises:

    Idiopathy by Sam Byers, (arrestingly subtitled ‘A novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle’; is there a prize for the best subtitle?) which explores the consequences of a disaffected 30-year old woman effecting a reunion with an ex-lover and an old friend recovering from mental illness.

    Meeting the English by poet Kate Clanchy, in which a ‘genius’ 17 year-old boy from an obscure Scottish town is embroiled, via his position as a carer in a chaotic London household, in passion and confusion during the 1989 heatwave.

    Ballistics – another novel in which an inflammatory sun beats down, this time in the Canadian Rockies –  by D.W. Wilson, which involves a son’s quest (on behalf of his grandfather) to locate his missing father.

    The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison, whose titular character we discover alone, with no memories, in the Algerian desert during World War II, and who is obliged to reconstruct his identity through the letters in his postbag.

    The Dynamite Room, by Jason Hewitt – another World War II scenario, which sees a German Nazi officer break into a beach hut on the Suffolk coast, to find it’s already occupied by a 12 year-old evacuee.

    The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, the Costa Book of the Year for 2013, which examines the relationship between a schizophrenic young boy and his brother, before and after the death of the latter.

    A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from the small publisher Galley Beggar Press, winner of the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013, longlisted for The Bailey’s and shortlisted for The Folio prizes this year, which also narrates a troubled sibling relationship, involving a grave childhood illness.

    Young adult novelist Katharine Grant’s Sedition, set in a late eighteenth-century London teeming with suspicion, insurrection and fear, in which a plot is hatched involving a piano and a man seeking husbands for five city men’s daughters.

    Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera, which looks at marriage from the very different perspective of a family running a Wolverhampton corner shop, and a returning son who is torn between his impending London nuptials and complex family loyalty.

    The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which gives voice to a cast of characters in an Irish town as the economic recession breeds moral dilemmas which pit personal against public duties.

    Some common themes, then, as well as a diversity of plots and environments, and authors emerging from different genres to tackle the adult novel. This was also the case with last year’s Desmond Elliott winner, Ros Barber, a poet who extended her craft into the verse novel about the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe, The Marlowe Papers.


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