On Wednesday 2 June the National Centre for Writing announced the three-strong shortlist for the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize, which will be awarded to the most outstanding first novel of the past 12 months.
The winner will be announced on Thursday 1 July.
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.
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.
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 lectures at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her short story collection Attrib. and Other Stories (Influx Press) won the James Tait Black Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize. The Liar’s Dictionary is her debut novel.