The shortlist for the 2016 Sunday Times/Peters, Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award reflects the breadth of bold experimentation in contemporary British fiction and poetry.
The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner) is a rich and immersive novel about love, obsession, creativity and disintegration, set within a gated refuge for beleaguered artists on the forested island of Portmantle off the coast of Istanbul.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray Originals) is a collection of stories that range over centuries and across the world, featuring literal and metaphorical hauntings and striking acts of cruelty, neglect and penance.
Physical by Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry) is a debut collection of raw and intimate poems about masculinity and male desire, in which casual encounters and intimate relationships become redeemable and revelatory.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (Faber) is the touching story of a well-known Crow who comes into the life of a grieving Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons as they face up to the boys’ mother’s sudden death.
Here are extracts from each of the shortlisted books. Which would you pick for the top prize?
He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us, except there was a harrowed quality about this boy that we had not seen before in any of the newcomers. A private torment seemed to clamp the muscles of his face, as though every disappointment in the world had been disclosed to him too young and stunted his expression. We knew him as Fullerton: an ordinary name, a plain one, but not the sort that sinks into the depths of memory without unsettling others.
Our anticipation of him was enough to disrupt our normal routines, setting us off course the way a premature adjustment to the wind can strand a kite. Rarely had we paid so much attention to the refuge gates, or given more than a terse thought to another resident’s circumstance. But he was presented to us as a special case, a kindred spirit worthy of our time and interest. So we offered it.
We were conscripted to his cause from the beginning: Quickman, MacKinney, Pettifer and me. The provost himself had called a meeting in his study to explain, over a glass of pomegranate juice, that Portmantle was about to receive its youngest ever resident, and had made a show of outlining how much he would personally appreciate our support. ‘You know I’m loath to burden you with this kind of responsibility,’ he had told us, ‘but the boy’s going to need some help finding his feet, and Ender can’t manage on his own – his English isn’t up to it. I need the four of you to be there for him while I’m gone. You remember what it’s like to be gifted at that age – a sympathetic ear can really make a difference.’ In truth, we were cajoled into a volunteering mood by the hint of a reward, some luxury that might be procured from the mainland in return for our good deed: Earl Grey tea leaves, smoked bacon, porridge oats; the most banal of pantry items were great delicacies to us, and we wilted at the thought of them.
Sometimes I dream that there is still the internet. In my dream, hours pass as I press refresh on news sites, my mind gliding over time as if it were sheet ice. Boredom is so nuanced down here. I jag on every second. I have measured the perimeters of all the rooms. Nothing alters. There was a week when I counted all the buttons in the haberdashery store, and another when I watched the wall. One week I became excited and I used all the therapeutic art supplies to paint a window on the kitchen ceiling, but somehow I never got it finished. I can hold my breath for four minutes and thirty-two seconds. At the time I thought the window would be a symbol of hope, but afterwards I realised how incredibly stupid that was. In my dream, I am searching for the perfect video of a cat, jumping. I know that it exists. I sleep for sixteen hours a day. There are no sounds that aren’t made by me, the generator, or Marie. In my dream, I sit at a table and watch videos on YouTube until I notice that in every video I am standing, in the background, looking out. If I was waiting for something, even if it never came, then it would be easier.
Marie and I haven’t spoken for sixteen months and nine days. It’s been four months and twenty-two days since I saw her, but I hear her so I know that she is safe. She painted nasturtiums next to the daffodils in my window’s window-box, but those two would never be in flower together. The day I counted all the coat buttons she moved some toggles from one pile to the other so I had to start again. She tore out the last page of every third mystery novel in the library and she keeps them in a strong box. That is not what the strong boxes are for. I wrote my initials on all the Kraft cheese slices with a pin and then used the laminator to reseal them. I have no way of telling if she knows. Sometimes when I wake up suddenly in the night with my heart thumping and the sweats, I think that I’ve been calling her name, and that she’ll come.
I planted some seeds in a tray beneath the lamp which spills out ersatz daylight to stop us from becoming depressed, but they haven’t sprouted, so perhaps the lamp is broken. I ought to put an end to it but the thought I could is the only thing that keeps me going.
Sometimes I think that maybe we made a mistake, and up above everything continues as it was before. People go back and forth across the ground. People wake and breathe the air. I think that perhaps the steel-and-concrete outer door has grown over with grass and lichen. People use it as a picnic table. We are not saved but missing. As well as the dreams about the internet I have dreams in which it is raining. We have no way of knowing. If once we found the courage and we walked up the tunnel towards the world and opened the heavy door, perhaps then the smell of the meadow in the early morning sunshine would be so strong that we would be unable to bear it. We have food left for sixteen years and five months. This timespan could be doubled if we were always hungry. Things could take their course. We have no way of knowing. All we can do is pick, one way or the other, and then behave as if the way we chose was right.
From Physical by Andrew McMillan
THE MEN ARE WEEPING IN THE GYM
the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs their hearts have grown too big
for their chests their chests have grown too big
for their shirts they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit
they are crying in the toilet
and because they have built themselves
as statues this must mean that God
has entered them they are wringing
their faces like sweat towels
in the sink their veins are about
to burst their banks they are flooding
out of themselves onto the tiles
they have turned water into protein shakes
they have got too close to the mirrors
they have got too close to the glass
and now they are laying
in the broken pools of their own faces
the lines of them! at the decline press
the bicep curl waiting staring
straight ahead swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration
that the words they mutter as they lift
are meaningless that they feel
nothing when the muscle tears itself
from itself that they don’t hear
the thousands of tiny fracturings
needed to build something stronger
Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins, singing the hymns.
I lost a wife once, and once is as many times as a crow can lose a wife. Ooh, stab it. Just remembered something.
He flew a genuflection Tintagel–Carlyle cross Morecambe–Orford, wonky, trying to poison himself with forbidden berries and pretty churches, but England’s litter saved him. Ley lines flung him cross-country with no time for grief, power cables catapulted loose bouquets of tar-black bone and feather and other crows rained down from the sky, a dead crow storm, a tor top burnt bird bath, but our crow picked and nibbled at Lilt cans and salted Durex and B&H, and the fire storm passed over his head, as written history over the worker. Blackberry, redcurrant, loganberry, sloe. Damson, plum-pear, crab-apple, bruises. Clots, phlegm, tumours and quince.
He looks in a puddle of oil and sees his beak is brightly coloured, striped red, green, purple and orange. Like a fucking puffin.
He opens his mouth to scream and beautiful English melody comes out, garden-song, like a blackbird or Ivor blooming Gurney.
This is another one of Crow’s bad dreams.
Benjamin Wood was born in 1981 and grew up in northwest England. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, , which he attended with the support of a Commonwealth Scholarship. His bestselling debut The Belwether Revival (2012) was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Book Prize and le Prix du Roman Fnac.
Author portrait © Nicholas Wood
Jessie Greengrass was born in 1982. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and London, where she now lives with her partner and child. The title story of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2016.
Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. His debut was the first poetry collection to win the Guardian First Book Award, and has also claimed a Somerset Maugham Award, an Eric Gregory Award, the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection and a 2015 Northern Writers Award. He lectures at Liverpool John Moores University and lives in Manchester.
Author portrait © Urszula Soltys
Max Porter was born in 1981 and is Editorial Director of Granta Books and Portobello Books. He lives in South London with his wife and children. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is his first book.
Author portrait © Lucy Dickens
The shortlist was chosen by a judging panel comprising broadcaster James Naughtie, historian Stella Tillyard and The Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate. Inaugurated in 1991, past winners to have become leading lights of contemporary literature include Helen Simpson, Caryl Phillips, Patrick French, Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Robert Macfarlane and Adam Foulds.
The prize is awarded annually to the best work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author under 35. £5,000 is given to the overall winner and £500 to each of the three runners-up. After a seven-year hiatus, literary agency Peters Fraser + Dunlop stepped in as sponsor in 2015, and poet Sarah Howe won the top prize for her extraordinary first collection Loop of Jade, which then went on to win the country’s leading prize for poetry, the T.S. Eliot Prize. The winner of 2016 Award will be announced on Thursday 8 December.
Wednesday 30 October
Young Writer of the Year showcase
Second Home, 68 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JL
6:30 for 7 pm
Max Porter, Benjamin Wood, Jessie Greengrass and Sarah Howe (right) are appearing at a special free public event, with readings and discussion chaired by Andrew Holgate. Complimentary beer is provided by BrewDog.
More info and tickets