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Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize

By Paridhi Badgotri, Gabriella Sotiriou, and Thomas Caldow

This month saw the announcement of the very first winner of the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize. What makes this prize stand out from the crowd is that it is judged completely by Waterstones’ booksellers. Earlier this year Waterstones booksellers from each and every branch were provided with a number of books from the longlist to read, review and eventually vote on during the month of June. The titles that were provided to each bookseller who signed up to be part of the judging panel were assigned completely randomly and provided by the wonderful publishers. The prize caused quite a buzz between booksellers as well as a lot of excitement upon the arrival of the postman to see what each bookseller had been sent to review.

The prize was awarded to Tess Gunty for her novel The Rabbit Hutch which has been described as “fiercely original” and was the most popular amongst the booksellers across the country. The novel follows the inhabitants of the Rabbit Hutch, an affordable housing complex in a town within the Rust Belt of the American midwest that saw great industrial decline in the 1980s. Through the individual inhabitants Gunty explores themes such as urbanisation, gentrification, the intricacies of the care system, and poverty. The main focus of the tale is Blandine, who is both beautiful and intelligent, and how she eventually discovers a chosen family in unlikely places.

Gunty will receive £5000 pounds and commitment from Waterstones to continue supporting her career. The shortlist included:

Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow

Stringfellow presents the story of an intergenerational family living in Memphis. The protagonist of the novel, Joan, is a woman from this family. Through Joan, the book explores Black womanhood in the family. Memphis commemorates the enduring strength of female bonds between these three generations. It focuses on creating a better future of Black women in the face of horrendous history.

Vagabonds by Eloghosa Osunde

Set in Lagos, Vagabonds explores the corruption and hideous nature of Nigerian capitalism through the lives of the “vagabonds:” the queer, footloose and displaced. The book delves into the realm of magical realism where the binary between reality and fantasy is blurred through the spirits that come alive in the corrupted nature of Lagos. The book provides the most radical hope in a world governed by power and oppression by advocating for resistance.

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

The novel is again a story of resolute hope in the middle of a plague which has destroyed the lives of most of the people on the planet. Nagamatsu focuses on a widowed painter and her granddaughter's cosmic quest for a new planet to save mankind. A tale of making the impossible happen through love and reinvention, How High We Go in the Dark forces the readers to think about the possibilities of existence beyond the earth and other new inventions.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Louise Kennedy has followed up her 2021 short story collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac with Trespasses, described by The Guardian as a novel of “utter conviction.” Telling the story of a love taking place across the divide of the Irish Troubles, Kennedy draws us into a world so carefully realised it is hard to escape it even after turning the final page. The novel’s human and deeply attentive prose offers a moving portrait of love and struggle as well as fresh perspective of an already well-documented time of the country’s history.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Chemist turned cookery show star, Elizabeth Zott, is the start of this bold, funny, and exhilarating debut from former copywriter Bonnie Garmus. Examining the struggle of Zott to be recognised for her talent and personhood in the face of the institutionalised misogyny of the 1960s, and her subsequent rise to fame as one of America’s most beloved TV chefs. Lessons in Chemistry is at once deeply sympathetic, absurd and inspiring. Garmus brings humour and joy to what could potentially be difficult subject matter and asks to rethink how we view our lives.

Following the announcement that the Costa Book Awards would cease operating earlier this year, it is encouraging for the UK literary community to see the interest generated by this newly founded prize. Furthermore, the strength of this debut shortlist is certainly an exciting prospect for the future work of these supremely talented authors. The success of Waterstones’ other flagship prize, the Book of the Year prize, certainly highlights the potential of such projects, with numerous winners going on to be part of the top bestseller lists in the past few years. We eagerly await to see to what extent the work of the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize will support up-and-coming authors in their work for years to come.



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