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The most influential prize for young writers, The Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Trust Young Writer of the Year Award, today announces a shortlist of unprecedented calibre.

The judges have chosen:

  • Irish novelist Megan Nolan for her darkly funny debut novel Acts of Desperation.
  • US-based writer Anna Beecher for her novel about love, life and loss Here Comes the Miracle.
  • Cal Flyn, an author and journalist from the Highlands of Scotland, for her eerie yet ultimately optimistic account of ecological diversity, Islands of Abandonment.
  • Londoner Rachel Long for her debut poetry collection, My Darling from the Lions.
  • British-Ghanian author Caleb Azumah Nelson for his first novel, Open Water, set in South East London.

The 2021 shortlist

Sponsored by the Charlotte Aitken Trust, who join the prize for the first time this year, the award is given annually to the best work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author of 35 or under.

On this 30th anniversary year the shortlisted writers have already achieved remarkable recognition including a Costa First Novel Award win (Caleb Azumah Nelson), a Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month (Cal Flyn), and a Rathbones Folio Prize poetry shortlisting (Rachel Long). This calibre of talent reflects the ability of the prize to find and celebrate authors of the highest quality at the beginning of their careers; the award’s alumni list reads like a Who’s Who of modern British and Irish literature over the last 30 years, from Zadie Smith and Sarah Waters to poet laureate Simon Armitage and Robert Macfarlane.

The 2021 winner will join Jay Bernard (2020), Raymond Antrobus (2019), Adam Weymouth (2018), Sally Rooney (2017), Max Porter (2016) and Sarah Howe (2015) on the impressive list of recent alumni.

This year’s judges – novelist, short story writer and academic Sarah Moss; novelist and essayist Andrew O’Hagan; award-winning author and columnist Tahmima Anam; critic Claire Lowdon; writer and creative writing teacher Gonzalo C. Garcia, chaired by Sunday Times Literary Editor Andrew Holgate – shortlisted five instead of the usual four authors, echoing the decision made by the 2020 judges.

Sarah Moss said: “From a strong longlist, we chose the five books that showed the most inventive and promising writing. I’m confident that these are not only new books and new stories but new voices that will become part of our shared cultural life in the coming years. The rising generation inherits a shameful mess, but the breadth of genres and themes here attests to the artistic and intellectual energy of new writers.”

Andrew O’Hagan said: “These young writers are inside the culture of today to a mesmerising extent. They take nothing for granted but their right to speak. I felt proud reading them, and am sure we are in at the beginning of some truly brilliant careers.”

Tahmima Anam said: “What I love about all of these writers is that their work carries a deep moral urgency. I am moved and impressed by the virtuosity of the prose, but they also make me care, and that is a rare and precious quality in a writer.”

Claire Lowdon said: “These writers stand out because they are risk-takers. Risking vulnerability, risking unlikability. Taking chances with style, with perspective, with form. Open any one of these books and you will find yourself, thrillingly, in uncharted territory.”

Gonzalo C. Garcia said: “The authors in our shortlist offer a consistent focus on humanising stories with unquestionable skill and originality. We find tales of love and heartbreak, trauma and healing, set up against a sharp questioning of broader power dynamics – as well as the subversion of our perceptions of nature and the natural. These authors have given me much hope in these extraordinary times, finding beauty in our relationships to one another while speaking out about our collective pain, masterfully denouncing the political and moral shortcomings which continue to haunt us.”

In Acts of Desperation, Megan Nolan debuts her novel about a toxic relationship and female desire. The novel was featured in TIME 100 Must-Read Books of 2021 and Sunday Times readers were told to ‘believe the hype’ ahead of the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2021.

Anna Beecher writes predominantly about love, as depicted in her novel Here Comes the Miracle, a book about family ties, life, and loss, told across a lifetime of small miracles to which a family holds on. She was a winner of the $10,000 Henfield Prize for Fiction.

In Islands of Abandonment, the only non-fiction title on the shortlist, Cal Flyn explores the world’s abandoned places, through a meditation on how nature continues in humanity’s absence. The book is currently Waterstones’ non-fiction book of the month.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – in Rachel Long’s poetry debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was also shortlisted for multiple awards including the Costa Poetry Award.

Caleb Azumah Nelson, recent winner of the Costa First Novel Award, tells a love story set in South East London in Open Water that asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it.

In addition to the prize money, which this year has been doubled to £10,000 (with the shortlistees receiving £1,000 – doubled from previous years), the winner will be offered a bespoke 10-week residency by the University of Warwick. The London Library – which returns as the host of the ceremony following last year ’s digital edition – adds two years’ membership to the attractive winner package, as well as a year ’s membership for the shortlist. All shortlisted authors will be championed overseas by prize partner the British Council.

The 30th anniversary year also sees the introduction of a new partnership with Waterstones, who will be celebrating the shortlisted and winning authors for 2021 with bespoke content across all of their channels, including a specially commissioned piece for their blog and YouTube channel and Waterstones Plus newsletter, which reaches more than 1 million subscribers, alongside instore POS to showcase this year ’s Young Writers.

Bea Carvalho, Head of Fiction at Waterstones, said: “The judges have chosen a brilliant shortlist, which showcases the sheer excellence of new writing being published across genres today: this level of talent amongst emerging writers signals a bright future for literature, bookshops, and readers.

The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award has helped to launch the careers of some of the most celebrated and beloved writers at work today and it is exciting to think of these young writers joining those ranks. We are particularly thrilled to see Caleb Azumah Nelson, whose Open Water was selected by booksellers for the Waterstone Book of the Year 2021 shortlist, as well as Islands of Abandonments which is currently our Non-fiction Book of the Month.

All five authors contribute something fresh, vibrant, and vital to our bookshelves and we are grateful for the opportunity to elevate their profiles through this shortlisting, and introduce many more readers to their words. The judges have a tough task in selecting a winner from this very worthy shortlist, we can’t wait to see who they name as their winner.”

The 2021 winner will be announced in a ceremony at the London Library on 24 February 2022.

Young Writer Award @YoungWriterYear

Follow us on twitter. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a prize of £10,000 for a writer under 35.

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