Authors’ Club Best First Novel shortlist unveiled

C J Schuler

One of my more pleasant responsibilities is to sit on the judging panel of the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, for which the shortlist has just been announced.

BFNA2013 300x292 Authors Club Best First Novel shortlist unveiled

The way the award is judged differs somewhat from other literary prizes such as the Booker, the Costa and the Orange, where the final choice is made by a panel of judges. In our case, club members submit reports, on the basis of which the judging panel, chaired by the literary critic and former books editor of The Independent on Sunday Suzi Feay, draws up a longlist of 12 titles.

This is then whittled down to a shortlist of six, which is submitted to a guest adjudicator for a final decision. We’ve had some distinguished judges in recent years, including D J Taylor, Joanne Harris, Amanda Craig and Philip Hensher. This year it is the turn of Salley Vickers, author of such fine novels as Miss Garnett’s Angel, Dancing Backwards and The Cleaner of Chartres.

Needless to say, the process of arriving at a shortlist generates intense, wide-ranging, stimulating and sometimes passionate debate, and the result is inevitably a compromise; everyone has books they like that don’t make it on to the list.

But what struck me was not only the strength of the shortlist that eventually emerged, but its dazzling variety: Ros Barber’s tour de force The Marlowe Papers, which recounts the life and death of the poet-spy in verse; Lloyd Shepherd’s The English Monster, a rattling adventure of piracy and dockside murders that probes the sinister heart of Britain’s mercantile empire; Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, a salty saga of three generations of bolshy, irreverent, foul-mouthed Aberdeen fishwives;  Seldom Seen, Sarah Ridgard’s dark, brooding story of secrets and lies in deepest Suffolk; Absolution by Patrick Flanery, in which an eminent South African novelist and her biographer are forced to confront their own – and the country’s – troubling past; and AJ Kay’s extraordinary Mountains of the Moon, in which a young woman, recently released from prison, is beset by a hallucinatory cast of bizarre characters as she attempts to piece together the fragments of her life.

Indeed there were some very impressive novels that didn’t make it beyond the longlist, including The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott, Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson and Ramshackle by Elizabeth Reeder.

But then the bar is set high. Since the prize was first awarded in 1954, its winners have included Brian Moore for The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Alan Sillitoe for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Paul Bailey, Gilbert Adair, Jackie Kay and Diran Adebayo. In recent years, the award has gone to Kevin Barry for City of Bohane (2012), Jonathan Kemp for London Triptych (2011), Anthony Quinn for The Rescue Man (2010), Laura Beatty for Pollard (2009), Segun Afolabi for Goodbye Lucille (2008) and Nicola Monaghan for The Killing Jar (2007).

Salley Vickers will announce the winner and present the £2,500 prize at a reception at the National Liberal Club on Monday 3 June. And the runners-up can take comfort from the fact that they’re in good company – four of Granta’s 2013 Young Novelists were shortlisted in recent years: Naomi Alderman, Ross Raisin, Zadie Smith and Evie Wyld.

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