Eley Williams, Rebecca Watson and A K Blakemore are shortlisted for the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize with debuts exploring language and British culture through the female lens.
Awarded annually for a first novel written in English and published in the UK, the prize is named after literary agent and publisher Desmond Elliott and run by the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. This year's prize is chaired by author and former winner Lisa McInerney, who is joined by writer Chitra Ramaswamy and book reviewer and broadcaster Simon Savidge.
The all-female shortlist for the £10,000 prize sees Williams recognised for her etymology-inspired The Liar's Dictionary (William Heinemann) weeks after winning the Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award. McInerney praised Williams’ “irresistible passion for words and her canny understanding of language’s subversive potential” as well as the "compelling love story". It is focused around "Swansby's New Encyclopaedic Dictionary" which is filled with fictitious entries by a man wishing to make his lasting mark while intern Mallory must uncover them before the dictionary can be digitised for modern readers. Williams’ short story collection Attrib. And Other Stories (Influx) won the James Tait Black Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize and was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Poet Blakemore’s novel, The Manningtree Witches (Granta Books), presents “an original take on a real historical horror” according to McInerney, and is “startlingly empathetic, stirring and certain from the first page”. Set in the witch trials of 1643, prize organisers said it “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”. Blakemore has previously been published by Eyewear and Offord Road Books and won the 2019 Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection.
Watson (pictured), assistant arts editor at the Financial Times, is shortlisted for her first book little scratch (Faber) which “wields the eccentricities of little scratch with conviction”, and “tackles trauma with unexpected and complex lightness", McInerney said. The novel tells the story of a day in the life of an unnamed woman processing sexual violence while clock-watching, navigating office politics and scrolling WhatsApp notifications. In 2018, Watson was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize.
Award organisers said that all three titles on the shortlist "explore themes of self-discovery and language, as well as the nuances of British history and culture, through the lens of female experience". The entries were whittled down from an indie-dominated longlist of 10 titles announced in April.
The Desmond Elliott Prize sits alongside two other prizes on the centre’s Early Career Awards portfolio. Also included is the University of East Anglia (UEA) New Forms Award, worth £4,000, for an innovative and daring new voice in fiction, with I R Franklin, Charlotte Geater and James Wilkes all shortlisted. The Laura Kinsella Fellowship, also worth £4,000, honours an exceptional writer who has experienced limiting circumstances, with shortlisted authors including Maritsa Farah Baksh, Harminder Kaur and Annie Walmsley.
Peggy Hughes, programme director at the National Centre for Writing, said: “We’re delighted to reveal the shortlisted names for the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Laura Kinsella Fellowship and the UEA New Forms Award: a hugely talented, innovative and exciting set of writers. It is no easy task for our judges to whittle the longlists down to shortlists of three and we very much enjoyed hearing Lisa, Chitra and Simon’s thoughts on these captivating and thought-provoking titles.”
The winners of all three awards will be announced on 1st July, and all will benefit from a tailored programme of support from the National Centre for Writing, supported by Arts Council England.
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