On Thursday 15 April the National Centre for Writing announced the 10-strong longlist for the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize, which will be awarded to the most outstanding first novel of the past 12 months.
The shortlist will be announced on Tuesday 1 June.
A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press)
Doireann Ní Ghríofa
A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’
A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.
‘With luminous language and candid details, this book shimmers with honesty and scholarship. A truly original read.’ – The Sunday Independent
Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a poet and essayist. Her most recent book is the bestseller A Ghost in the Throat, which finds the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill haunting the life of a contemporary young mother, prompting her to turn detective. Doireann is also author of six critically-acclaimed books of poetry, each a deepening exploration of birth, death, desire, and domesticity.
Awards for her writing include a Lannan Literary Fellowship (USA), the Ostana Prize (Italy), a Seamus Heaney Fellowship (Queen’s University), the Hartnett Poetry Award, and the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, among others.
Castles From Cobwebs (Saraband)
Imani is a foundling. Rescued as a baby and raised by nuns on a remote Northumbrian island, she grows up with an ever increasing feeling of displacement. Full of questions, Imani turns to her shadow, Amarie, and her friend, Harold. When Harold can’t find the answers, she puts it down to what the nuns call her ‘greater purpose’.
At nineteen, Imani answers a phone call that will change her life: she is called to Accra after the sudden death of her biological mother.
Past, present, faith and reality are spun together in this enthralling debut. Following her transition from innocence to understanding, Imani’s experience illuminates the stories we all tell to make ourselves whole.
‘A compelling exploration of memory, race, mothers and the fractured self, Mensah questions the frameworks through which we understand the world and interrogates how to put disparate parts of our identities together to become the most true version of ourselves.’ – Jessica Andrews, author of Saltwater, winner of the Portico Prize 2020
J.A. Mensah is a writer of prose and theatre and teaches at the University of York. Her plays have focused on human rights narratives and the testimonies of survivors. Her short stories appear in collections published by Comma Press (The Book of Newcastle) and the forthcoming Northern Anthology by Dead Ink (Test Signal), among others. Castles from Cobwebs, her first novel, won the inaugural NorthBound Book Award.
Crow Court (Unbound)
Spring, 1840. In the Dorset market town of Wimborne Minster, a young choirboy drowns himself. Soon after, the choirmaster—a belligerent man with a vicious reputation—is found murdered, in a discovery tainted as much by relief as it is by suspicion. The gaze of the magistrates falls on four local men, whose decisions will reverberate through the community for years to come.
So begins the chronicle of Crow Court, unravelling over fourteen delicately interwoven episodes, the town of Wimborne their backdrop: a young gentleman and his groom run off to join the army; a sleepwalking cordwainer wakes on his wife’s grave; desperate farmhands emigrate. We meet the composer with writer’s block; the smuggler; a troupe of actors down from London; and old Art Pugh, whose impoverished life has made him hard to amuse.
Meanwhile, justice waits…
‘As gripping as Hilary Mantel and as convincing as Sarah Perry […] debut novels shouldn’t be this perfectly formed’ – Ben Myers, author of The Offing
Andy Charman has a BA in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Warwick and works as a business analyst and consultant. He is also a certified coach, working with other authors on their writing practice. His short stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, The Battered Suitcase, Cadenza, Ballista and other periodicals and websites. Born and raised in Dorset, he now lives in Surrey with his wife and daughter.
Exciting Times (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)
Ava, newly arrived in Hong Kong from Dublin, spends her days teaching English to rich children.
Julian is a banker. A banker who likes to spend money on Ava, to have sex and discuss fluctuating currencies with her. But when she asks whether he loves her, he cannot say more than ‘I like you a great deal’.
Enter Edith, a lawyer. Refreshingly enthusiastic and unapologetically earnest, Edith takes Ava to the theatre when Julian leaves Hong Kong for work. Quickly, she becomes something Ava looks forward to.
And then Julian writes to tell Ava he is coming back to Hong Kong… Should Ava return to the easy compatibility of her life with Julian or take a leap into the unknown with Edith?
Politically alert, heartbreakingly raw, and dryly funny, Exciting Times is thrillingly attuned to the great freedoms and greater uncertainties of modern love. In stylish, uncluttered prose, Naoise Dolan dissects the personal and financial transactions that make up a life-and announces herself as a singular new voice.
‘Exciting Times, which was acquired in a seven-way bidding war, more than lives up to the hype … It teems with insight around class, race, language and sexuality. Likely to fill the Sally-Rooney-shaped hole in many readers’ lives.’ – Irish Times
Naoise Dolan is an Irish writer born in Dublin. She studied English Literature at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University. Exciting Times is her first novel, an excerpt from which was published in The Stinging Fly. Exciting Times has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize, Dylan Thomas Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards, Dalkey Literary Awards and Waterstones Book of the Year. Naoise was also shortlisted for the Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award in 2020.
How We Are Translated (Scribe)
Jessica Gaitán Johannesson
Swedish immigrant Kristin won’t talk about the Project growing inside her. Her Brazilian-born Scottish boyfriend Ciaran won’t speak English at all; he is trying to immerse himself in a Swedish språkbad language bath, to prepare for their future, whatever the fick that means. Their Edinburgh flat is starting to feel very small.
As this young couple is forced to confront the thing that they are both avoiding, they must reckon with the bigger questions of the world outside, and their places in it.
‘How We Are Translated is the most contemporary of novels …. It’s a novel that anyone interested in the future of the English novel needs to read!’ – Sara Baume, author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Jessica Gaitán Johannesson grew up between Sweden, Colombia and Ecuador. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in publications in the UK, US and Ireland, including The Stinging Fly, Litro, Witness Magazine and The Scotsman. Her debut novel How We Are Translated was published by Scribe in the UK in February 2021. Since 2015 she works as a bookseller for the independent bookshop Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, where she produces and hosts the Mr B’s Podcast. She’s active in the climate justice movement, facilitating workshops on the colonial roots of the climate crisis, and the connection between the climate crisis and migrant rights.
little scratch (Faber)
little scratch tells the story of a day in the life of an unnamed woman, living in a lower-case world of demarcated fridge shelves and office politics; clock-watching and WhatsApp notifications.
In a voice that is fiercely wry, touchingly delicate and increasingly neurotic, the protagonist relays what it takes to get through the quotidian detail of that single trajectory – from morning to night – while processing recent sexual violence.
little scratch is about the coexistence of monotony with our waking, intelligent lives. It is a powerful evocation of how the external and internal aspects of our lives exist in a helix, and what it means to live out the course of a single day consumed by trauma.
‘What is striking about little scratch is Watson’s ability to connect her character’s inner monologue with her physical existence; she is never less than fully embodied… little scratch is an extremely perceptive depiction of power and agency.’ – Alex Clark, Guardian
Rebecca Watson is the author of little scratch. She is one of The Observer‘s 10 best debut novelists of 2021. Her work has been published in the TLS, The Guardian, Granta and elsewhere. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize. She works part-time as Assistant Arts Editor at the Financial Times and lives in London.
Open Water (Viking)
Caleb Azumah Nelson
Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.
At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.
‘Like the title suggests, Open Water pulls you in with one great swell, and it holds you there closely. A beautiful and powerful novel about the true and sometimes painful depths of love’ – Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a 27-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His writing has been published in Litro. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People’s Choice prize. Open Water is his first novel.
Rainbow Milk (Dialogue Books)
Rainbow Milk is an intersectional coming-of-age story, following nineteen-year-old Jesse McCarthy as he grapples with his racial and sexual identities against the backdrop of a Jehovah’s Witness upbringing and the legacies of the Windrush generation.
In the Black Country in the 1950s, ex-boxer Norman Alonso is a determined and humble Jamaican who has moved to Britain with his wife to secure a brighter future for themselves and their children. Blighted with unexpected illness and racism, Norman and his family are resilient in the face of such hostilities, but are all too aware that they will need more than just hope to survive.
At the turn of the millennium, Jesse seeks a fresh start in London – escaping from a broken immediate family, a repressive religious community and the desolate, disempowered Black Country – but finds himself at a loss for a new centre of gravity, and turns to sex work to create new notions of love, fatherhood and spirituality.
Rainbow Milk is a bold exploration of race, class, sexuality, freedom and religion across generations, time and cultures. Paul Mendez is a fervent new writer with an original and urgent voice.
‘When did you last read a novel about a young, black, gay, Jehovah Witness man from Wolverhampton who flees his community to make his way in London as a prostitute? This might be a debut, but Mendez is an exciting, accomplished and daring storyteller with a great ear for dialogue. Don’t read this book if you like your fiction cosy and middle-of-the-road’ – Bernardine Evaristo, author of Girl, Woman, Other
Paul Mendez was born and raised in the Black Country, a historic part of the industrial West Midlands. He now lives in London and is the author of Rainbow Milk, a novel listed by the Observer as one of its top ten debuts for 2020. He is currently reading the MA in Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, and has written for Vogue, Esquire, the Times Literary Supplement and Brixton Review of Books.
The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann)
Peter Winceworth, a disaffected Victorian lexicographer, inserts false entries into a dictionary – violating and subverting the dictionary’s authority – in an attempt to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom. In the present day, Mallory, a young overworked and underpaid intern employed by the dictionary’s publishing house, is tasked with uncovering these entries before the work is digitised. As the novel progresses and their narratives combine, as Winceworth imagines who will find his fictional words in an unknown future and Mallory discovers more about the anonymous lexicographer’s life through the clues left in his fictitious entries, both discover how they might negotiate the complexities of an absurd, relentless, untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, undefinable life. Braiding together contemporary and historical narratives, the novel explores themes of trust, agency and creativity, celebrating the rigidity, fragility and absurdity of language.
‘It’s just the real inexplicable gorgeous brilliant thing this book. I love it in a way I usually reserve for people.’ – Max Porter, author of Lanny
Eley Williams lives and works in Ealing. She is co-editor of fiction at 3:AM magazine and assists the independent publisher Copy Press. Eley has been awarded the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize and her work has been shortlisted twice for The White Review’s Short Story Prize. Her short story collection Attrib. and other stories, published Influx Press, was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize, longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and won the Republic of Consciousness Prize.
The Manningtree Witches (Granta Books)
England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.
In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers – the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins takes over the Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.
The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.
‘I loved this riveting, appalling, addictive debut. Blakemore captures the shame of poverty and social neglect unforgettably, and the alluring threat of women left alone together, in a novel which vividly immerses the reader in the world of those who history has tried to render mute’ – Megan Nolan, author of Acts of Desperation
A. K. Blakemore is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: Humbert Summer (Eyewear, 2015) and Fondue (Offord Road Books, 2018), which was awarded the 2019 Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection. She has also translated the work of Sichuanese poet Yu Yoyo (My Tenantless Body, Poetry Translation Centre, 2019). Her poetry and prose writing has been widely published and anthologised, appearing in the The London Review of Books, Poetry, Poetry Review and The White Review, among others.