The annual Desmond Elliott Prize, the “most prestigious award for first-time novelists” (Telegraph) has announced its shortlist today, Monday 26 May 2014. The three nominated novels are: The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison (Granta); Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press); and Ballistics by D.W. Wilson (Bloomsbury).
The shortlist – a triumph for independent publishing – was selected from a longlist of “ten astonishing novels” by this year’s judging panel, comprising: Isabel Berwick, Associate Editor, FT Life and Arts; Patrick Neale, former President of The Bookseller’s Association and owner of Jaffe and Neale bookshop in Chipping Norton; and novelist Chris Cleave, the Chair of Judges.
Cleave said: “This was a superb longlist of unusually accomplished debut novels, some showing classic craft at the highest level and others offering breathtaking innovation. To pick a shortlist was to measure owls against swifts. All of us on the panel agreed on six books that deserved to make the cut, so it was heartbreaking to have to choose three – but we were all happy with this shortlist. As a novelist, a critic and a bookseller we loved these books from all angles and we believe that this list continues the Desmond Elliott tradition of bravery, excellence and flair.”
Penned in just six months, Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing was initially shelved after being rejected by every major publisher. Finally emerging nine years later from Galley Beggar Press, it is a story of sisterly love which has already received much critical acclaim, including an acknowledgement of “genius” from author and critic Anne Enright. To read this novel is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, as the author depicts in her own singular language a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Cleave said: “A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is wild, brave, moving and darkly cryptic.”
Former theatre director and marketing copy-writer Robert Allison’s World War II novel, The Letter Bearer, is, according to Cleave, “a wholly original allegory of our struggle to find identity.” It follows a nameless motorcyclist left for dead in the Libyan desert. Found by a band of British Army deserters, with no recollection of who he is, the amnesiac rider is forced to confront not only his identity in the absence of rank, class or status but also his relationship to his rescuers. Allison skilfully raises questions about trauma, guilt and man’s instinct for personal survival.
Cleave praised D. W. Wilson’s Ballistics, as “a combination of supreme elegance of form with hard-bitten wisdom”. The Winner of the 2011 BBC National Short Story Competition, Wilson has already received high praise for his work, and refers to his own writing as “sad man fiction”. In Ballistics, we meet Alan West, sent, by his grandfather, on a mission deep into the Canadian Rockies to retrieve his own father, lost to him since infancy. In this narrative, set against a backdrop of burning mountains, Alan unravels his past and the climactic events that led to his parent’s disappearance.
Chair of the Trustees, Dallas Manderson, said: “It’s without doubt harder to be a debut novelist today than ever before. Our mission with this Prize has always been to introduce and to applaud great new writers. Once again, our judges have done a marvellous job of selecting fantastic works by three exciting and unique voices. I commend them all.”