‘These debut writers are as passionate and political as our times demand’
On Tuesday 7 April the National Centre for Writing announced the 10-strong longlist for the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize, for the most outstanding first novels of the past 12 months. The 2020 Prize longlist exemplifies the extraordinary strength and breadth of UK and Irish debut fiction.
The Desmond Elliott Prize 2020 shortlist will be announced on Tuesday 2 June.
The Art of the Body (Little Brown)
Janet is caught between care work and caring. Her life revolves around Sean, a talented art student, living and working with cerebral palsy. Both Janet and Sean are new to London, living at a distance from their families. Both are finding a means of escape through pushing their bodies to new limits.
When Sean is faced with an unexpected and deeply personal tragedy, Janet has to let her guard down and discover what she’s prepared to fight for.
The Art of the Body is a novel about dignity, intimacy, faith and sacrifice, unafraid to explore uncommon bodies in unusual ways.
‘Finely written and thoughtfully devised, this is also a disquieting and unsettling read about the balance of power, cruelty and compassion in the relationship between a carer and their charge’ – Guardian
Alexander Allison was born and raised in London. He holds a BA in Art History from University of York, and an MA in Creative Writing from University of Manchester’s Centre for New Writing. His work has been published by Civil Coping Mechanisms, The Red Ceilings Press, Popshot, Willow Springs, and Artifice Magazine among others. He can be found on Twitter at @alex_j_allison where he mostly posts about AFC Wimbledon and his poor luck at poker.
The Girl with the Louding Voice (Sceptre)
Meet Adunni, a fourteen-year-old living in a Nigerian village outside Lagos. She is a downtrodden daughter, desperately missing her deceased mother, and will soon become a despised third wife then an abused domestic servant.
She is expected to be meek, quiet, obedient.
Adunni is none of these things. She is determined and loyal and curious.
This is the story of Adunni’s pursuit of education. Her search to find her louding voice. So that she can speak for herself – and for all the girls who came before her.
‘[A] brave, fresh voice . . . Daré draws the reader in with a vivid character whose dire circumstances are contrasted with her natural creativity . . . Unforgettable’ – New York Times
Abi Daré grew up in Lagos, Nigeria and has lived in the UK for over 18 years. She studied law at the University of Wolverhampton and has an M.Sc. in International Project Management from Glasgow Caledonian University. Keen to improve her writing, Abi completed an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck University of London, achieving a Distinction. Her novel, The Girl with The Louding Voice won The Bath Novel Award in 2018 and was selected as a finalist in The Literary Consultancy Pen Factor competition in 2018. Abi lives in Essex with her husband and two children. Twitter @abidare_author
Nobber (JM Originals)
An ambitious noble and his three serving men travel through the Irish countryside in the stifling summer of 1348, using the advantage of the plague which has collapsed society to buy up large swathes of property and land. They come upon Nobber, a tiny town, whose only living habitants seem to be an egotistical bureaucrat, his volatile wife, a naked blacksmith, and a beautiful Gaelic hostage. Meanwhile, a band of marauding Gaels are roaming around, using the confusion of the sickness to pillage and reclaim lands that once belonged to them. As these groups converge upon the town, the habitants, who up until this point have been under strict curfew, begin to stir from their dwellings, demanding answers from the intruders. A deadly stand-off emerges from which no one will escape unscathed.
‘Plague-ridden, trippy and violent, it’s uniquely told and full of startling images’ – Observer, Books of the Year
Oisín Fagan has had short fiction published in the Stinging Fly and the anthology Young Irelanders, with work featured in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. In 2016, he won the inaugural Penny Dreadful Novella Prize for The Hierophants. Hostages, his first collection, was published in 2016. He is a recipient of the 2016 and the 2018 Literature Bursary Award from the Arts Council of Ireland. His debut novel, Nobber, was named a book of the year in the Observer and the Daily Mail. Twitter @OisinFagan
The Parisian (Jonathan Cape)
Midhat Kamal navigates his way across a fractured world, from the shifting politics of the Middle East to the dinner tables of Montpellier and a newly tumultuous Paris. He discovers that everything is fragile: love turns to loss, friends become enemies and everyone is looking for a place to belong.
Isabella Hammad delicately untangles the politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War. An intensely human story amidst a global conflict, The Parisian is historical fiction with a remarkable contemporary voice.
‘A sublime reading experience: delicate, restrained, surpassingly intelligent, uncommonly poised and truly beautiful’ – Zadie Smith
Isabella Hammad was born in London. She won the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction for her story ‘Mr. C an’aan’. Her writing has appeared in Conjunctions and the Paris Review. The Parisian is her first novel.
Supposed to be a refuge. But death got inside.
When Katie Straw’s body is pulled from the waters of the local suicide spot, the police decide it’s an open-and-shut case. A standard-issue female suicide.
But the residents of Widringham women’s refuge where Katie worked don’t agree. They say it’s murder. Will you listen to them?
‘Moor’s clever, literary thriller is a compelling story of power and control – she’s definitely a writer to watch.’ – The Independent
Jessica Moor studied English at Cambridge before completing a Creative Writing MA at Manchester University. Prior to this she spent a year working in the violence against women and girls sector and this experience inspired her first novel, Keeper. Follow her on Twitter: @jessicamoor
The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney (Dialogue Books)
As Nnenna approaches womanhood she longs to connect with her Igbo-Nigerian culture. Her once close and tender relationship with her mother becomes strained as Nnenna begins to ask probing questions about her estranged father, who her mother who refuses to discuss.
Nnenna is asking big questions of how to ‘be’ when she doesn’t know the whole of who she is. Meanwhile, Joanie wonders how to love when she has never truly been loved. Their lives are filled with a cast of characters asking similar questions about identity and belonging whilst grappling with the often hilarious encounters of everyday Manchester.
‘Nzelu writes with a witty confidence rarely seen in debut fiction. Smart, serious and entertaining, I expect this writer to go far.’ – Bernadine Evaristo
Okechukwu Nzelu is a writer and teacher. He was born in Manchester in 1988, read English at Girton College, Cambridge and completed the Teach First programme. His work has been published in Agenda, PN Review, E-magazine and The Literateur and his essay ‘Troubles with God’ was published in the anthology Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (Trapeze, 2019). In 2015 he was the recipient of a New Writing North Award for The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, which is his debut novel. Twitter @NzeluWrites
That Reminds Me (#Merky Books)
In That Reminds Me, Derek Owusu has created a wholly original fictional work charting a young man’s descent from childhood to mental collapse and recovery. Drawing upon universal themes from belonging to addiction, identity to sexuality, That Reminds Me brings to life these experiences with a fresh perspective.
‘Derek Owusu’s writing is honest, moving, delicate, but tough. Once you lock on to his words, it is hard to break eye contact. A beautiful meditation on childhood, coming of age, the now, and the media. This work is heartfelt.’ – Benjamin Zephaniah
Derek Owusu is a writer and poet from north London. Until recently, he was also one-third of the Mostly Lit podcast team. He discovered his passion for literature at the age of twenty-three while studying exercise science at university. Unable to afford a change of degree, Derek began reading voraciously and sneaking into English Literature lectures at the University of Manchester. Derek edited and contributed to Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space (Trapeze). That Reminds Me is his first solo work.
Asghar and Zahra (JM Originals)
Childhood friends Asghar and Zahra were born into the same British Muslim community in west London. But they grow up into very different people. Asghar is a shy boy nervous of stepping outside his family’s comfort zone, while Zahra is an ambitious woman who has just finished her degree at Cambridge.
The novel opens on their wedding day as friends and family wonder what could possibly have brought this odd couple together. After a comically disastrous honeymoon, painful secrets from the past throw the relationship further off balance. And then there’s the sinister preacher taking a keen interest in them . . .
A funny, sympathetic and very human novel about the first year of a marriage, and the difficulties of reconciling the sometimes conflicting demands of family, religion and society.
‘A wonderful achievement; an invigorating reminder of the power fiction has to challenge lazy stereotypes, and stretch the reader’s heart’ – Guardian
Sameer Rahim has worked in literary journalism for ten years, and is now managing editor of Prospect Magazine, having been formerly arts and books editor. In 2013, his essay In the Shadow of the Scroll: reconstructing Islam’s origins won a William Hazlitt essay prize. His debut novel, Asghar and Zahra, was named a book of the year in the New Statesman. Twitter @sameerahim
Kozlowski (Holland House Books)
Kozłowski tells the story of a young Polish army doctor whose life is changed forever by a single, mysterious event: the disappearance, in April 1940, of 4,000 of his comrades from a Soviet interrogation camp in Starobelsk, Ukraine. Exiled in post-war London, Kozłowski builds a new life, working to convince himself that the past cannot affect him. In reality, the past is the only place he longs to be. As the silence surrounding his lost comrades deepens, his attempts to submerge his feelings threaten to destroy him.
A novel about loss, memory and guilt, written in sparse and elegant prose.
‘Those questions of what makes a life worth living, of identity and belonging, and the myths, memories and beliefs we live by, are the central threads running through this beautiful and immensely readable novel, carrying the reader onwards through the ever-shifting fabric of the wartime and post-war world.’ – Caroline Wyatt, European Literature Network
Educated at Cambridge University, writer and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska studied film in Leeds and Poland, going on to make a series of award-winning short films and working extensively as writer and director. She is the author of the acclaimed biography of the German photojournalist Gerda Taro, who died while reporting on the Spanish Civil War. Gerda Taro: Inventing Robert Capa (Jonathan Cape 2013) is now in development as a feature film based on her own script. Jane’s next book is a non-fiction work about the Katyń Massacre. Surviving Katyń will be published in 2021 by Oneworld.
Love and other Thought Experiments (Corsair)
Rachel and Eliza are hoping to have a baby. The couple spend many happy evenings together planning for the future. One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. She knows it sounds mad – but she also knows it’s true. As a scientist, Eliza won’t take Rachel’s fear seriously and they have a bitter fight. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question.
Told in ten interconnecting but self-contained chapters – each from a different character’s perspective – and inspired by some of the best-known thought experiments in philosophy, particularly philosophy of mind, Love and Other Thought Experiments is a story of love lost and found across the universe.
‘It is an act of such breathtaking imagination, daring and detail that the journey we are on is believable and the debate in the mind non-stop. There are elements of Doris Lessing in the writing – a huge emerging talent here’ – Fiona Shaw
Sophie Ward is an actor and writer. She has a degree in Philosophy and Literature and is studying for her PhD at Goldsmiths on the use of narrative in philosophy of mind. She has published articles in The Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Spectator, Diva and Red magazine. Her short stories have been published in the anthologies Finding A Voice, Book of Numbers, The Spiral Path and The Gold Room. Her book, A Marriage Proposal; the importance of equal marriage and what it means for all of us was published by the Guardian short books in 2014. In 2018, Sophie won the Royal Academy Pin Drop Award for her short story, ‘Sunbed’. Twitter @sophieannaward