Tag: Desmond Elliott Prize

Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Earlier this week, the Desmond Elliott Prize for first novels was announced. The winning book was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which I’m reading at the moment. The novel I’m looking at today, however, was one of the shortlisted titles. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has written a tale of navigating life at the confluence of two cultures – and it’s a strong debut.

In 1968, Yuki is the daughter of a Japanese family living in New York. Her father’s company is sending him back to Tokyo, but Yuki is torn over the prospect of going there: on the one hand, she doesn’t have a single friend in New York; on the other, Japan is a distant memory for her.

Skipping class at school, Yuki meets a girl who calls herself Odile, and who dreams of being a model. Odile becomes the closest thing that Yuki has to a friend, and Yuki decides to move in her and her mother Lillian, a romance novelist. Yuki wants to be more like Odile – which is to say, she’d like to be whiter; Yuki is never quite able to resolve the tension she feels of being between two cultures. The two experience teenage girlhood in New York – but when Odile gets her dream, they start to drift apart, and Yuki has to look elsewhere for a connection.

Buchanan is excellent at delineating the development of Yuki’s different relationships, how each grows alongside the last to begin with, before gradually superseding it as circumstances change. The author also evokes Yuki’s feelings about art brilliantly. Yuki’s great desire is to be an artist; her feeling for art is visceral. Here she is experiencing an exhibition of contemporary art for the first time:

Warm tears raced down her cheeks and into her mouth. She swallowed them, imagined the salt absorbed by her gut and revolving up again towards her eyes. The clear white gallery lights pointed and blurred like stars. It was as if someone had peeled off the crisp outer layer of her skin so that the whole world felt achy and glowing. Finally, this sadness was no longer trapped in her cramped body. It was a living thing and bright as joy itself.

This is a raw, deep emotion that seems to emerge spontaneously. An outside observer may not understand, may think: why is she being driven to tears by a pile of dirt? The sense is that this feeling of Yuki’s doesn’t fit into the world; her wish as an artist is to create a space in the world where it will fit – just as she is looking for a space for herself.

Alternating with Yuki’s story is that of her son Jay, almost fifty years later. Half-Japanese, half-wit, Jay was abandoned by his mother when he was a young child. Jay’s main story begins as he becomes a father; a few months later, he loses his own father, who died after swerving off the road to avoid a deer; dealing with his father’s estate will finally lead Jay to confront Yuki.

Jay’s situation is not quite an inversion of his mother’s, but the landscape of his life is different. As a gallery owner, the art world is no mystery to him. He’s puzzled by parenting, though; and still ponders his place in the world. Perhaps we might say that Jay had at least part of a path through life illuminated for him in a way that Yuki didn’t; but he still has to find his own way through in the end. Harmless Like You is the story of how both Yuki and Jay come to a conclusion in life, by finding each other.

Book details

Harmless Like You (2016) by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Sceptre Books, paperback, 308 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist 2015

The Desmond Elliott Prize jury has announced its shortlist:

  • A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
  • Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

This is quite a unified selection, with strong themes of family and secrets (and family secrets), and some very powerful moments. It’s difficult to guess which the judges might choose as a winner. We’ll find out on 1 July.

Desmond Elliott Prize 2015: the shadowing begins


After the translations, the debuts: like last year, I am taking part in shadowing the Desmond Elliott Prize. Here is this year’s longlist:

  • Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist (Picador)
  • Alex Christofi, Glass (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (Fig Tree)
  • Jonathan Gibbs, Randall, or the Painted Grape (Galley Beggar Press)
  • James Hannah, An A-Z of You and Me (Doubleday)
  • Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing (Viking)
  • Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Unbound)
  • Laline Paull, The Bees (Fourth Estate)
  • Simon Wroe, Chop Chop (Viking)

First impressions? Elizabeth Is Missing was, of course, my favourite book read in 2014 (immediately ahead of last year’s Desmond Elliott winner, as it happens), so that’s my front-runner going into the shadowing. I’m also particularly pleased to see The Wake getting a nod. The biggest omission for me is Lucy Wood’s Weathering, a superb novel which I thought would be a dead cert for this longlist. Whatever else happens with this year’s Prize, I will be disappointed that Weathering is not in the mix.

Still, on we go. The links in the list above will take you to my reviews of the longlisted titles; I’ll be adding as many as I can in the weeks ahead. Finally, let me introduce you to the other members of this year’s shadow panel: El Ashfield, Dan Lipscombe, Zoe Venditozzi and Sarah Watkins.

The 2014 Desmond Elliott winner

As announced on Thursday night, the winner of this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize is… A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.


I’m very pleased with that result – and not only because Eimear McBride’s book was my favourite on the longlist. The continued success of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – like that of The Luminaries before it – gives me hope that there’s a real place out there for fiction that challenges the norm and follows its own path. And that, in turn, makes me want to find and read more of such fiction, and tell people about what I’ve enjoyed. If there’s one thing I can do with this blog, I’d want that to be it.

The shadow Desmond Elliott winner

The result of the Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced imminently, so it’s time to reveal the shadow jury’s selection. Our shadow shortlist comprised Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. And after discussing it and reaching a consensus, we came up with our shadow winner… The Shock of the Fall.


Interestingly (and like the shadow IFFP jury) our winner isn’t even on the official shortlist – but without doubt, it’s a book worth reading, and Filer’s a name to follow in the future.

So, to the actual Desmond Elliott Prize – will it go to Robert Allison, Eimear McBride, or D.W. Wilson? We’ll find out on Thursday night. For now, I’d like to thank my fellow shadow jurors Dan, Heather, Kaite, Jackie, and Sarah – it’s been great fun.

Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist event: Wed 18 June

The winner of this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced on Thursday 3 July, but this is just a quick heads-up to say that this Wednesday in London, you can catch the shortlisted authors – Robert Allison, D.W Wilson, and recent Baileys winner Eimear McBride – reading from and discussing their work with Chris Cleave, chair of the judges.

The event takes place at Waterstones Piccadilly, beginning at 6.30pm. More details here.

The 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist

The official shortlist was announced yesterday:

  • The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison (Granta)
  • A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Ballistics by D.W. Wilson (Bloomsbury)

Well. This shortlist has two books in common with our shadow selection, but the inclusion of Ballistics actually gives it a very different character overall. As with the IFFP shortlist, I find it fascinating to see the consensus of another group of readers.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing remains my favourite book from the Desmond Elliott longlist (read my review here), and I think it has a good chance of winning. We’ll find out on 3 July.

The IFFP winner and the shadow Desmond Elliott shortlist

Iraqi ChristWe announced our shadow ‘winner‘ on Wednesday, and last night the actual 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded to The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma Press. Blasim is an interesting writer whose short stories combine the fantastical and macabre with the realities of life in post-war Iraq; I didn’t get chance to review The Iraqi Christ myself, but I have previously reviewed his first collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, which I liked very much.

The IFFP judges also gave a special mention to Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and published by Peirene Press; it was very nice to see such recognition for a fine book. Indeed, the result all round was a huge — and well-deserved — vote of confidence for small presses and short fiction in translation. Finally, on a more personal note, it was really gratifying to hear Moira Sinclair from Arts Council England mention the shadow jury in her opening speech; the whole IFFP shadowing process has been immensely enjoyable and rewarding anyway, but that nod was a reminder that we have left a mark (83 reviews of the longlisted books between us, if nothing else).

I’m struck that both book blogging and literary translation are acts of sharing – sharing books we love, and thoughts about them. After the IFFP yesterday, I only want to explore translated fiction further, and share it more. Thanks to everyone involved in the IFFP, and especially to my fellow shadow-jurors. I’m looking forward to next year already!


But there’s the Desmond Elliott Prize before then, and we now have our shadow shortlist:

  • The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison (Granta)
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (HarperCollins)
  • A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press)

It’s a really strong list (my personal shortlist would replace The Letter Bearer with Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, but Allison’s book is very close behind); I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the actual shortlist turned out to be very similar. We’ll find out when the Desmond Elliott judges announce their shortlist on Monday; we’ll then declare the shadow ‘winner’ on Wednesday 2 July, the day before the award ceremony.

"We are all the things we'll ever be"

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

Girl is a Half Formed ThingThis is the latest example of a small press title breaking through: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published last year by Norwich’s Galley Beggar Press; it has since won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize (awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”), been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (which is the context in which I’m now reading it). It has also now been published in a new edition by Faber & Faber, which comes with a cover quote from Eleanor Catton. That’s apposite: both Catton and Eimear McBride have debuted with intense portraits of girlhood, and and their work carries the sense of writers seeking to embody their concerns in the form of what they write.

McBride’s novel is written in a choppy, largely fragmented style that, in one interview, she dubbed “stream of pre-consciousness”. Anyone who loved The Rehearsal will recognise the mental adjustment needed to engage with prose like this:

Sons for breaking chairs on the backs of. Daughters to shoo from the bath for a wee. Rich-ish husbands or they got a crack in the jaw. Chaste-ish wives or the boys got more. Goodfornothinglumpofshitgodforgiveyou. Ours got for a wedding a glare though he paid.He, at least, knew how to behave. Though a man like our father could be nothing to him. Not to lick his boots. Not to be his dog. (p. 12)

My first instinct at one time would have been to call this kind of writing ‘difficult’, but in practice it’s not as simple as that. Taking the above passage as an example, there’s a compelling rhythm and cadence to McBride’s prose, and some striking detail of character (the narrator is talking about her grandfather and his children). What A Girl is a Half-formed Thing really demands is a different way of reading: concentration, yes, because what we’re being told is ‘unprocessed’; but it means that we experience the events of the narrator’s life in a similar way to her.

The ultimate effect of McBride’s prose style, I think, is to collapse the narrator’s interior and exterior lives together: so, experience is sensation is emotion is detail is thought. This makes the novel all the more harrowing, because we are that much closer to what the narrator goes through. And A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is uncompromising: while seeing her elder brother struggle with the effects of a brain tumour, its protagonist (McBride’s characters don’t receive names) experiences a strict religious upbringing in rural Ireland, and the unwelcome attentions of her abusive uncle. When the girl leaves home for the city, she finally has the chance to spread her wings – if she can.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘s form underlines how its protagonist experiences what happens to her. The most coherent language within the text is often religious or some other voice of adult authority, thereby suggesting sources of structure and order – but the narrator will find them ultimately lacking. The girl’s relationships with her brother and uncle become ghastly mirror images of each other: she fears for her brother, but his illness creates an unbridgeable gap between them. In contrast, the girl’s uncle comes horrifically close to her – but she experiences both relationships with the same intensity.

After twenty years of life, McBride’s narrator looks around her:

I see the water. Look upon the lake I’ve been in. I’ve been known of. Come to know. Well. Touched and loved and ripped here all by the same hands teeth and claws and waded in. Swim. See my scrawl there. Under my feet. Mud and weeds where I was, my blood split on. Running in running in among the reeds where the ripple fish go. And vomit and some half drunk can, some things, some paper bags some cigarette rolled and stuffed and smoked. Ground to the heel. This home I know. (p. 201)

Just as the text has elided her experiences and emotions, so the girl sees this place as coexisting with what occurred there. For all that has happened to her, this is what she knows; for good or ill, this has been her life.

Going back to Eleanor Catton, I’m reminded of her essay about literature as encounter, the idea that our relationship with a book can be as complex and rich as those we have with people. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is like that for me: I can’t see it as a book to love – it’s too unforgiving for that – but neither can I see it as anything less than a triumph. McBride’s novel does what it does, remorselessly, completely, powerfully. I can only be glad that it’s with us.

Read my other posts on the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize here.


Interview with Eimear McBride at The Honest Ulsterman

Reviews of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by other members of the shadow DE jury: Utter Biblio; Between the Covers; Sarah Noakes.

Desmond Elliott Prize 2014: the longlist

de2014On the shadow IFFP jury, we’re just finalising our shortlist; as the first stage of that shadowing process comes to an end, I’m about to embark on another one. This time it’s for the Desmond Elliott Prize, which is awarded each year to a UK-published debut novel, written in English by an author who lives in the UK or Ireland (previous winners include Grace McCleen’s The Land of Decoration and Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet).

The judgeds for this year’s prize are the novelist Chris Cleave, bookseller Patrick Neale, and journalist Isabel Berick. Dan Lipscombe of the blog Utter Biblio has also put together a shadow jury to read and rate the longlist. As well as me, the shadow jury includes Jackie Bailey of Farm Lane Books; Heather Lindskold of Between the Covers; reader and reviewer Sarah Noakes; and journalist Kaite Welsh.

The 2014 Desmond Elliott longlist was announced shortly after midnight this morning; here it is:

  • Robert Allison, The Letter Bearer (Granta)
  • Sam Byers, Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • Kate Clanchy, Meeting the English (Picador)
  • Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall (HarperCollins)
  • Katharine Grant, Sedition (Virago)
  • Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster)
  • Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
  • Sathnam Sanghera, Marriage Material (William Heinemann)
  • D.W. Wilson, Ballistics (Bloomsbury)

I haven’t read any of these, so any first thoughts will be tentative, but… It seems a good mixture of talked-about titles and more obscure ones. I guess the biggest names on the list are Nathan Filer and Eimear McBride, who won the Costa and Goldsmiths Prize (two rather different awards, I’d observe) respectively for their books.

Looking at the list from a structural point of view, it would have been nice to see more books by women and writers of colour, and more small-press titles. Nevertheless, there are some titles on there that I’m keen to read: besides the Filer and McBride, I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Byers and Sanghera; I’ve read a bit of the Clancy and really liked it; and I enjoyed Wilson’s BBC National Short Story Award winner a few years ago.

I won’t commit to reviewing all the books; but I will be reading them all, and talking about as many as I can. You’ll be able to follow the shadow jury’s thoughts on each title on this page of Dan’s blog.

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