The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so the shortlist contains a poetry collection as well as novels and short stories.
I’ve read half of the shortlist (also including Warsan Shire’s poems) and would be interested in trying the rest if I can source the two short story collections; Limberlost is at my library. The winner will be announced at 8 p.m. BST on Thursday 11 May.
Seven Steeples by Sara Baume
Isabel and Simon arrive one January at a shabby rental house in coastal Ireland overlooked by a mountain, in the middle of nowhere. They’d been menial workers in Dublin and met climbing a mountain, but somehow never seem to get around to climbing their new local peak. In moving here, these “two solitary misanthropes” are essentially rejecting society and kin; Baume describes them as “post-family.” It appears that they’re post-employment as well – there is never a single reference to how they pay the rent and buy the hipster foods they favour. Could young people’s savings really fund eight years’ rural living?
It’s an appealingly anti-consumerist vision, anyway: They arrive with one van-load of stuff and their adopted dogs, Pip and Voss, and otherwise make do with a haphazard collection of secondhand belongings left by previous tenants or donated by their estranged families. The house starts to fall apart around them, but for the most part they adjust to the decay rather than do anything to reverse it. “They had become poor and shabby without noticing … accustomed to disrepair”; theirs is a “personalized squalor.”
Bell and Sigh become increasingly hermit-like, with entrenched ways of doing things. Baume several times describes their compost bin, which struck me as a perfect image for how the stuff of daily life builds up and beds down into the foundation of personalities and a relationship. The fact that they only have each other (and the dogs) for company explains how they adopt each other’s mannerisms, develop a private language, and even conflate their separate memories. The starkest symbol of their refusal of societal norms comes when they miss a clock change and effectively live in their own time zone.
I recognized from Spill Simmer Falter Wither and handiwork several elements that reflect Baume’s interests: nature imagery, dogs, and daily routines. She gives a clear sense of time’s passage and the seasons’ turning, of repetition and attrition and ageing. I wearied of the descriptive passages and hoped that at some point there would be some action and dialogue to counterbalance them, but that is not what this novel is about. Occasional flashes from the point-of-view of a mouse in the house, or a spider in the van, tell you that Baume’s scope is wider. This is in fact an allegory about impermanence, from a mountain’s-eye view.
Although I was frustrated with the central characters’ jolly incompetence (“Just buy leashes and a tick twister, you idiots!” I felt like shouting at them after yet another mention of the dogs killing cats and rabbits; and of the difficulty of removing ticks from their coats), I recognized how easy it is to get stuck in lazy habits; how easy it is to live provisionally, as if all is temporary and not your real existence.
Baume spaces lines and paragraphs almost like hybrid poetry and indulges in overwriting in places. Because of the dearth of action, this was a slog of a months-long read for me, but I admired it in the end and enjoyed it more than the other two books of hers that I’ve read.
If you admire lyrical prose and are okay with little to no plot in a novel, you should get on fine with this one. Or it might be that it requires the right time or reading mood, when you’re after something quiet.
Having read more by Dylan Thomas now, I think this is exactly the sort of place-specific and playful, stylized prose that the prize named after him is looking for. So, I’ll predict Baume as the winner.
With thanks to Tramp Press for the free e-copy for review.
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
This was one of my correct predictions for the Women’s Prize longlist; I’d heard a lot about it from Best of 2022 roundups and it seemed like the kind of edgy title they might recognise. It’s also perfect for the Dylan Thomas Prize list because of how voice-driven it is. The unnamed narrator, a woman of colour in her early thirties, muses on art, entitlement, obsession, social media and sex in short titled sections ranging from one paragraph to a few pages long. The twin objects of her fanaticism are “the man I want to be with,” who is married and generally keeps her at arm’s length, and “the woman I am obsessed with,” a lifestyle influencer who, like herself, is one of this man’s girlfriends on the side. She stalks the woman via her impeccably curated Instagram images.
The narrator has a boyfriend, in fact, a peculiarly perfect-sounding one even, but takes him for granted in her compulsive search for indiscriminate sexual experience (also including a female co-worker she calls “the Peach”). They end up parting ways and she moves back in with her parents, an ignominious retreat from attempted adulting.
She reminded me a bit of Bell and Sigh for her haplessness, but whereas the matter of having children literally never arises for them, the question of motherhood is a background niggle for her (“I thought I had the rest of my life to make this decision but I realise I am on a clock and it runs differently for me. I am female. There was never much time and I’ve wasted so much already”; “I want to gain immortality because of my brain and not because of the potential of my womb”). As the novella goes on, she even considers weaponising her fertility as a way of entrapping her crush.
I was reasonably engaged with the narrator’s deliberations about taste and autobiographical influences, but overall found this rather indulgent, slight and repetitive. Books about social media – this reminded me most of Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth – are in danger of becoming irrelevant all too quickly. The sexual frankness fell on the wrong side of unpleasant for me, and the format for referring to other characters leads to inelegant phrasing like “The man I want to be with’s work centres around conflict”. Something like Luster has that little bit more individuality and energy. (Secondhand – charity shop purchase)