'Awe-inspiring' debut wins Desmond Elliott Prize after being snubbed by publishers

'Awe-inspiring' debut wins Desmond Elliott Prize after being snubbed by publishers

Preti Taneja has won the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize for her “awe-inspiring” retelling of King Lear, We That Are Young. It marks the second time a book published by small independent Galley Beggar Press has claimed the prize, following its win with Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing in 2014.

In both cases the Norwich-based press owners Sam Jordison and Eloise Millar said they were "baffled" as to why the prize-winning manuscripts had been roundly rejected by other publishers before they picked them up.

Taneja accepted the award at a ceremony at Fortnum and Mason in London on Wednesday evening (20th June), which was also attended by fellow shortlisted authors Gail Honeyman and Paula Cocozza, respectively in the running for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperCollins) and How to Be Human (Windmill).

The judges were unanimous in their decision, according to chair Sarah Perry, and left "shaking their heads, saying, ‘if this is her first novel, what extraordinary work will come next?'"

Perry, who judged the prize alongside broadcaster Samira Ahmed and Waterstones’ head of fiction and publisher liaison Chris White, said: "Samira, Chris and myself were absolutely unanimous in our love and admiration for this novel, whose scope, ambition, skill and wisdom was, quite simply, awe-inspiring."

We That Are Young is described as "a novel about the human heart, and its breaking point". A retelling of the story of King Lear, it chronicles the downfall of a family dynasty against a backdrop of the anti-corruption protests that swept across India in 2011–2012. Taneja, a human rights correspondent of Indian descent, had been working in New Delhi and Kashmir at the time she wrote the novel, researching the book by speaking with people from different castes, class backgrounds and religions.

Accepting the award, Taneja said: "It is an honour to be standing here tonight and to receive this wonderful endorsement of We That Are Young alongside such stunning books as Paula’s and Gail’s. This prize means a great deal."

Taneja went on to pay tribute to the judges, particularly “trailblazing women” Perry and Ahmed. She also thanked her family, her agent David Godwin, credited in keeping her feet "very steady" during this debut year, and her “visionary” editor Millar, who had understood the novel’s potential. 

"The honour doesn’t only belong to me but also to my wonderful editor, the visionary and completely obsessive Eloise Millar at Galley Beggar Press," said Taneja. "Her hand in every part of this process in bringing my book to the world, including hand-wrapping copies to send to reviewers and subscribers, is renowned in Norwich. She is my kind of woman; she is a strange kind of genius.".

Hinting at the book's rocky road to publication, the chairman of the prize’s trustees, Dallas Manderson, praised We That Are Young as "exactly the kind of novel that the Desmond Elliott Prize exists to discover and promote", an "extraordinarily accomplished debut [that] has flown somewhat under the radar thus far, not having received the attention and wide-spread acclaim that it so rightly deserves". 

When it was snapped up by Galley Beggar in 2016, Millar said the manuscript had come with "a history of ecstatic rejections" from editors who had concluded it was "extraordinary but too ‘tricksy’ to be a commercial success". By contrast, Millar found it "so good" she had been left "baffled" as to why there hadn't been a bidding war for the rights.

Speaking to The Bookseller following her win, Taneja said all in all it had taken seven years to get to this point. "It’s the most extreme story," she said. "I finished the book as part of a creating writing PhD in 2013. It went out on submission and it was roundly rejected by every publisher in London. I just put it in a draw. But I had a strong group of friends, and my partner wouldn’t let me give up on it." 

Subsequently, in 2014, Taneja entered a short story competition and won for her novella Kumkum Malhotra. Andrew McDonnell of not-for-profit Gatehouse Press, which then published it, asked what else she had in the works, and on receiving a chapter of We That Are Young promptly went round to Millar’s house with it.

“This is how Norwich works!” said Millar. “There was a knock on the door, and there was Andrew ... he said ‘I really feel you should read this’. It's wonderful. I think there is something really special about the way the small presses work together in this country. And thank goodness, because it's just the most extraordinary piece of writing. A strange person to be invoking but, TS Eliot said the perfect literature is the combination of the intellect and the emotion and that's We That Are Young. It's a call to arms."

Of Galley Beggar's continuing success, Manderson, chairman of the judges, said it was "particularly gratifying to witness".

"I know Desmond, who launched his own independent publishing house, Arlington Books, and dedicated his career to promoting new writers, would be delighted to see that a prize in his name is championing similarly small-but-mighty institutions," he said.

It is the second time in a week a small independent press has won a major literary prize after Bluemoose Books author Benjamin Myers scooped the £25k Walter Scott Prize on Saturday (16th June). 

Last year's Desmond Elliott Prize went to Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, published by Faber & Faber.