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The RSL Ondaatje Prize 2024

By Mythily Merai, Maria Sadek and Grace Briggs-Jones

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The RSL Ondaatje Prize is an esteemed literary award which celebrates outstanding works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry that evoke the spirit of a place. Established in 2004, it’s awarded annually by the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) in memory of Sir Christopher Ondaatje, a philanthropist and author. This award aims to recognise books that transcend geographical boundaries, transporting readers to diverse and captivating settings around the globe. Whether through vivid descriptions, immersive storytelling or profound insights into the human experience in a specific place, the shortlisted works capture the essence and atmosphere of their chosen locales.

Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, it’s a momentous occasion for the literary world and the enduring legacy of this esteemed award. The judging panel comprises esteemed writers and critics: Francis Spufford, Jan Carson and Xiaolu Guo. With their wealth of literary expertise and discerning eye for exceptional storytelling, they faced the formidable task of selecting the finalists from 194 entries. Judges consider not only the quality of writing, but also the ability of the nominated works to evoke a strong sense of atmosphere and authenticity. This unique criterion sets the prize apart and attracts submissions from various genres and authors.

Falling Animals is Sheila Armstrong’s debut novel, and first on the shortlist. The story of an unidentified man found on a windswept coastline in Ireland is told through a polyphony of voices as the nearby villagers are drawn into this strange tale. Hailed as a “quietly devastating novel” by Jan Carson who is “truly jealous of [Armstrong’s] craft,” it’s safe to say this debut novel has made a splash and marked Armstrong’s arrival onto the literary scene.

The second nominee is Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad, a novel that has already been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024. The book follows an actress who, returning to her homeland of Palestine after years away, grapples with her relationship to both the people around her and the place she used to call home. This powerful story demonstrates her journey to find herself again in her ancestral home. It's a captivating story that will stay with the reader long after the final page. 

Noreen Masud’s memoir takes the third spot on the shortlist. A Flat Place has also been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction 2024, the Jhalak Prize 2024 and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2023. A love letter to Britain’s breathtaking flatlands, these bare haunting expanses remind Masud of the flat place inside herself created by complex PTSD. Dubbed “[a] powerful and emotional read” by Xiaolu Guo, A Flat Place “reveals in all its complexity what it is like for someone to grow up in a former colony, and how [they] manage to cope with the past and the present.”

Next up is a triumphant new novel from the Walter Scott Prize-winning author, Benjamin Myers. Cuddy, winner of The Goldsmiths Prize 2023, is an experimental retelling of the story of the hermit of St Cuthbert, told through a combination of prose, poetry, play, diary and real historical events. Francis Spufford called it “[a] kaleidoscopic novel of the North-East of England…brilliantly splintered and coloured and spun by Myers.” The reader is introduced to many voices, including brewers and masons, archers and academics, monks and labourers. What brings them all together is the place at the centre of each story - Durham Cathedral. Cuddy is a bold retelling that is worthy of its place on the shortlist.

Next up is No Man’s Land by David Nash, a collection of poems that explore the rural landscape of Ireland. After spending a decade living in Chile, Nash returned to his homeland of Ireland where he reconnected with the memory, folklore, custom and landscape of the place he once called home. This is a powerful collection of poetry that explores space in a captivating way - it cannot be missed.

The final book is Fassbinder Thousands of Mirrors by Ian Penman. This novel combines biography, thriller, addiction and mystery into a kaleidoscopic tale that explores the Cold War and post-World War II culture. 

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors of the 2024 RSL Ondaatje Prize. Their exceptional ability to evoke the spirit of a place with depth and resonance has earned them a place of honour among the finalists. The winner will be announced on 14 May at Two Temple Place. 



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