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The 2021 Young Writer Of The Year Award Shortlist

A photograph of the five books in a pile

I’m incredibly happy to be posting this – the winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award (now in its 30th anniversary year) will be announced this Thursday, 24th of February at the London Library. Happy because when I checked late last year at the usual time and noted there was nothing on the website about the 2021 award, I wondered if it had been paused; I’m delighted that it has not been, and happy to hear that the dates have simply been changed. It is one of the best awards out there and the winners are always well-deserved.

This year there are five writers on the shortlist, the same number as last year (previously it has been four). There are three novels, one non-fiction, and one poetry collection. The shortlist is diverse and four of the writers are women. In alphabetical order by surname we have:

A photograph of Anna Beecher A photograph of Cal Flyn A photograph of Rachel Long A photograph of Caleb Azumah Nelson A photograph of Megan Nolan

Anna Beecher for her novel, Here Comes The Miracle:

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It begins with a miracle: a baby born too small and too early, but defiantly alive. This is Joe.

Decades before, another miracle. In a patch of nettle-infested wilderness, a seventeen year old boy falls in love with his best friend, Jack. This is Edward.

Joe gains a sister, Emily. From the outset, her life is framed by his. She watches him grow into a young man who plays the violin magnificently and longs for a boyfriend. A young man who is ready to begin.

Edward, after being separated from Jack, builds a life with Eleanor. They start a family and he finds himself a grandfather to Joe and Emily.

When Joe is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Emily and the rest of the family are left waiting for a miracle. A miracle that won’t come.

Here Comes the Miracle is a profoundly beautiful story about love and loss; and about the beautiful and violent randomness of life.

Cal Flyn for her work of non-fiction, Islands Of Abandonment:

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This is a book about abandoned places: ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man’s lands and fortress islands – and what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim its place.

In Chernobyl, following the nuclear disaster, only a handful of people returned to their dangerously irradiated homes. On an uninhabited Scottish island, feral cattle live entirely wild. In Detroit, once America’s fourth-largest city, entire streets of houses are falling in on themselves, looters slipping through otherwise silent neighbourhoods.

This book explores the extraordinary places where humans no longer live – or survive in tiny, precarious numbers – to give us a possible glimpse of what happens when mankind’s impact on nature is forced to stop. From Tanzanian mountains to the volcanic Caribbean, the forbidden areas of France to the mining regions of Scotland, Flyn brings together some of the most desolate, eerie, ravaged and polluted areas in the world – and shows how, against all odds, they offer our best opportunities for environmental recovery.

By turns haunted and hopeful, this luminously written world study is pinned together with profound insight and new ecological discoveries that together map an answer to the big questions: what happens after we’re gone, and how far can our damage to nature be undone?

Rachel Long for her poetry collection, My Darling From The Lions:

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Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Caleb Azumah Nelson for his novel, Open Water:

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Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists – he a photographer, she a dancer – trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence.

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water 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. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential British debut of recent years.

Megan Nolan for her novel, Acts Of Desperation:

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Discover this bitingly honest, darkly funny debut novel about a toxic relationship and secret female desire, from an emerging star of Irish literature.

She’s twenty-three and in love with love. He’s older, and the most beautiful man she’s ever seen. The affair is quickly consuming.

But this relationship is unpredictable, and behind his perfect looks is a mean streak. She’s intent on winning him over, but neither is living up to the other’s ideals. He keeps emailing his thin, glamorous ex, and she’s starting to give in to secret, shameful cravings of her own. The search for a fix is frantic, and taking a dangerous turn…

The judges, alongside The Sunday Times Literary Editor, Andrew Holgate, are Sarah Moss, Andrew O’Hagan, Tahmima Anam, Gonzalo C Garcia, and Claire Lowdon.

This year, Waterstones is involved. The bookstore has been celebrating the shortlist (and will be celebrating the winner) with special content on its various social media channels.

In past years I’ve had suspicions of who might win based on reading the work and being more involved; I have no idea this time, but poetry does very well in this award so if Rachel Long’s work is anything like the standard of Sarah Howe, Jay Bernard, and Raymond Antrobus (and it’s likely to be so), I’d say there’s a good chance she will win.

Regardless of who wins, it’s exciting and yes, I do plan to review at least a couple of these!


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