Six “bold and original new voices” have been shortlisted for the first Waterstones Fiction Prize.
The list, voted on by Waterstones booksellers, includes Sequoia Nagamatsu’s “extraordinary” sci-fi novel How High We Go in the Dark, Eloghosa Osunde’s “bold and beautiful blend of folklore and realism”, Vagabonds !, and Tara M Stringfellow’s celebration of Black. femininity, Memphis.
Also on the shortlist are bestsellers Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, The Rabbit Hutch “assured and truly memorable” by Tess Gunty and Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, described as a “dazzling and tender snapshot of life in the 1970s in Belfast”.
The Waterstones First Fiction Prize rewards first fiction in all its forms and aims to be “an extension and catalyst of the alchemy of word of mouth recommended by booksellers”. The winner will be chosen by a panel of Waterstones booksellers.
Bea Carvalho, Head of Fiction at Waterstones, said the “outstanding quality of submissions” for the prize meant a “bright and exciting future for fiction, and our six finalists represent the dazzling breadth of storytelling talent among this new generation of novelists”.
The books take readers “from war-torn 1970s Belfast to space travel to the spiritual underbelly of modern Lagos and the political landscape of contemporary America,” she said, adding: “This is a truly global, horizon-expanding, gender-defying shortlist. While covering a wide range of settings and themes, the shortlisted novels are “united by a generous ability to find hope, light and community in the most unlikely places; they are all timely and important novels written by writers of staggering ambition and talent,” she continued.
Lessons in Chemistry, which is being adapted for an Apple TV+ series starring Academy Award-winning Brie Larson, is set in the 1960s and follows scientist Elizabeth Zott as she battles inequality in through her groundbreaking cooking show, Supper at Six, and begins to sow the seeds of women challenging the status quo.
Garmus, a writer and creative director who has worked for clients in technology, medicine and education, said that “being nominated for a literary award is every writer’s dream, but being nominated for the first-ever Waterstones Prize for First Fiction is, for me, on a whole new level”.
Stephanie Merritt wrote in her Observer review that Lessons in Chemistry was a “refined, funny and thought-provoking story, carrying its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so elegantly twisted it’s hard to believe it’s is a start”.
Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch is about Blandine, who lives with three teenagers who, like her, grew old out of a foster care system that repeatedly failed them. The novel is set during a hot week in July, in an Indiana apartment building whose residents also include an online obituary and a woman leading a solo rodent campaign, and culminates in a bizarre act of violence. .
Gunty said she had worked on The Rabbit Hutch for five years “in the sincere belief that no one would ever read it”. So it was an “incandescent surprise” to receive “such mind-boggling support from Waterstones booksellers”, she said.
Trespasses is set in 1970s Ireland, as teacher Cushla meets Michael, an older married lawyer from Belfast, in her family’s pub. As the pair embark on an affair, Cushla must learn to find balance in a place of heightened tensions.
Kennedy, who is the author of the acclaimed short story collection The End of the World is a Dead End, said she was “beyond thrilled” to be shortlisted for the award. Hephzibah Anderson in her Observer review said that in Trespasses Kennedy combined “unflinching authenticity with narrative dexterity and an eye for detail.”
Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark is about a virus, recently discovered from melting permafrost, that is reshaping life on Earth for generations. It follows a cast of interconnected characters spanning hundreds of years as humanity struggles to restore the world’s delicate balance.
Nagamatsu said he was worried the novel would be labeled pandemic literature and would struggle to find readers, so he was “indebted to booksellers for seeing hope and community amid the darkness. “.
Working on the book “has saved me in so many ways over the past few years,” he added. “I hope my book can find new readers to help them through this time, whether that’s putting our historic moment in a new perspective, reminding people to embrace the small joys, or stepping away to watch the possibilities of who we might become”.
Set in and around Lagos, Osunde’s Vagabonds!, written in “standard” and pidgin English, features a number of characters through Èkó, the spirit of Lagos, and his faithful servant Tatafo, as they stir up trouble in the streets of the city and through the lives of the “wanderers” who power modern Nigeria: the gays, the displaced and the footless.
Michael Donkor, in his Guardian review, called the book a “noisy debut” and said it “boldly challenges the pernicious sexual orthodoxies and hypocrisies of Nigerian life”.
Osunde said it was “incredible” to see their novel “continue to go further in the world and be firmly recognized by the award.”
Stringfellow’s Memphis depicts approximately three generations of women from the same family, as Joan returns to her hometown as an adult, having last visited as a child. Stringfellow, a former lawyer, said her award shortlist was for “black women, across this diaspora.”
Waterstones announced its new award in April this year, just two months before the Costa Book Awards, which included a category for new writers, revealed its closure. Waterstones also runs a children’s book award and nominates a book of the year, which covers all genres.