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The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award shortlist readings

These days I seem to be shuttling between book events at Daunt’s in London’s Marylebone Road and Waterstones’ flagship store in the old Simpson’s Art Deco palace on Piccadilly. I was at the latter just over a week ago for the launch of Meike Ziervogel’s excellent new novel The Photographer, and back last Thursday to hear the six writers shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award read from their work.

The award is presented annually for the most promising debut published in Britain during the previous year. From its inception in 1954, it has consistently picked out novelists who have gone on to have long and distinguished careers. Early winners included Brian Moore for Judith Hearne and Alan Sillitoe for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the prize was subsequently awarded to Paul Bailey, Gilbert Adair, Jackie Kay and Diran Adebayo.

The actor Matthew Hodson gave powerful readings on behalf of the two authors unable to attend, and opened the proceedings with the first chapter of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier (Faber). Parker was a captain in the British Army who lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan. Although the experience forms the subject matter of his book, this is no thinly disguised autobiography, but a daring and brilliantly realized fictional tour de force. Each of the 45 chapters is narrated from the perspective of an inanimate object – a belt, a pair of desert boots, a bag of fertilizer – that played a part in the events; according to the author, they may be read ‘in any order, because that’s what it’s like to be blown up’.

Already shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and acclaimed as a ‘striking debut’ by the Sunday Times, Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words In My Hand (Two Roads) deals with the relationship between René Descartes and Helena Jans van der Strom in 17th-century Amsterdam. Discussing the role of historical fiction, Glasfurd said that she saw it as ‘a way of interrogating the past’, particularly with regard to ‘the invisibilty of women in history’. The judges praised the novel’s ‘wonderfully sensitive imagination and total lack of sentimentality’.

Not yet 30, Barney Norris is already an acclaimed playwright. His debut novel Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain  (Penguin) takes its epigraph from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: ‘We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could not bear very much of it.’ It is a statement of intent, and the novel traces the lives of five ordinary people brought together by a fatal car crash in Salisbury, a geographical setting that lends a long historical perspective to their everyday tragedies. Norris’s background in the theatre stood him in good stead as he read from the interior monologues of two of his characters.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is Japanese-British-Chinese-American, and her fictional debut Harmless Like You (Hodder) is an ambitious exploration of a search for identity and the nuances of cultural differences. Also shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, it recounts the struggles of a young Japanese woman, Yuki Oyama, to establish herself as an artist in New York, Berlin and Connecticut during the 1960s and 70s. The author read affectingly from the brittle, alienated scene in which her grown-up son Jay finally tracks down his mother and attempts to discover why she abandoned him as a child.

An abandoned child’s search for answers is also the subject of Jess Kidd’s powerful and darkly funny novel Himself  (Canongate). Brought up in London as part of a large family from Mayo, Kidd won the 2016 Costa Short Story Award for ‘Dirty Little Fishes’. She gave a powerful reading of her novel’s disturbing, violent, yet oddly lyrical prologue, before moving forward 26 years to chart the return of Mahony, car thief, charmer and gobshite, to a remote village in the west of Ireland to discover what happened to his mother, and why he was abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage.

It seems strange to see Francis Spufford’s name on the shortlist for a first novel award, as he is already a well-established author with several books to his credit, including The Child That Books Built (2002), Backroom Boys (2003) and Red Plenty (2010). But Golden Hill (Faber & Faber) is his first venture into fiction, a historical novel set in 18th-century New York. Spufford unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute, but Matthew Hodson gave a superbly dramatic reading of the opening scene, where a mysterious stranger disembarks from a ship from London, to present a Manhattan banker with a credit note for the astronomical sum of £1000, setting in motion a plot, in the words of the judging panel, ‘intricate beyond the dreams of Machiavelli’. Golden Hill was Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime over the past fortnight, and is still available on the BBC iPlayer.

The winner will be announced and the £2500 prize presented at a dinner at the National Liberal Club on 8 June by this year’s guest adjudicator Roma Tearne, author of six novels: Mosquito, Bone China, Brixton Beach, The Swimmer (long-listed for the Orange Prize 2011), The Road to Urbino and The Last Pier. Whoever wins the election that day, Tearne will have her work cut out voting for a single book from this blisteringly good shortlist.

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