Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize Shortlist Announced
By Maria Sadek, Grace Briggs-Jones and Clara Garnier-Barsanti
Waterstones has announced the shortlist for its much-anticipated Debut Fiction Prize for 2023, an award that honours the “best of the future of fiction.” Although this is only the second year that Waterstones have run this prize, it already has a reputation of bringing attention to fantastic pieces of debut fiction and launching them into bestsellers. The award’s first winner in 2022 was The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller and the recipient of other awards such as the National Book Award for Fiction 2022, achievements which the 2023 shortlisted authors will be hoping to echo.
The first novel on this year's shortlist is In Memoriam by Alice Winn, whose novel explores the ruthlessness and brutality of the First World War. Winn uses this harsh and vivid environment to frame the tender love story between two teenagers who have been enlisted as soldiers in the war and uses this contrast to explore the tragedies of combat. Observer reviewer Hephzibah Anderson describes the novel as a “vivid rendering of the madness and legacy of the first world war,” and author of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, describes it as “hard to believe that In Memoriam is a debut novel as it’s so assured, affecting and moving… [it] will live in your mind long after you’ve closed the final pages.”
Next up is Colin Walsh’s Kala, which follows a group of three friends reuniting in the same Irish seaside village their friend went missing fifteen years earlier. The movement between different time periods and locations within the novel makes for an exciting and page-turning narrative, where the suspense and richly complex characters will make you want to keep reading. Roddy Doyle describes the book as a “thriller – and a lot more. It is exciting and cleverly structured, but its great strength is the characters: they are terrific.”
Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin also has a place on the shortlist. This debut novel is extraordinary and heartbreaking focusing on the bonds that connect people, even those separated by seas or death itself. Following a group of Vietnamese refugees navigating their way through Thatcher’s Britain this novel paints a heart-wrenching portrait of a family in unimaginable adversity whilst exploring the healing power of stories. Garnering huge praise, Rebecca F. Kuang calls this book “beautiful, brilliant, unflinching” with Ocean Vuong hailing it as “genre-defying work [and] a long-overdue portrayal of Vietnamese life in the UK.”
It’s impossible to miss Jacqueline Crooks’ Fire Rush, a story that dives into the undergrounds of London, Bristol and Jamaica during the 1970s. There, between police surveillance and research for raw pleasure in the shadows of secretive night clubs, we follow the second generation of Caribbean immigrants in, as Colin Grant said, “a subterranean ghost story of intergenerational trauma.” This fiction based on her own writer’s diary entries from her younger years has already been longlisted for the Women’s Prize!
Another shortlisted debut is Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, a blistering dystopian vision of prison brutality played out for capitalist entertainment. This novel follows teammates and lovers Thurwar and Stacker through a live-streamed gladiator-style fight for their freedom from the US private jail system. This book is perfect for fans of Squid Game, The Handmaid’s Tale and Watchmen – it is a page-turning near-future dystopia from one of American fiction’s brightest stars. This debut has gained rave reviews including from Tommy Orange who said “as big as it is dazzling. Just wild how good and original this book is’ and Jessamine Chan adding ‘readers will be forever changed by this book.”
The last shortlisted is Close to Home by Michael Magee; told through the lens of two working-class brothers in post-conflict Belfast this is a striking tale of poverty, love and trauma. Close to Home represents vividly and brilliantly what it feels to be in that grey zone of finding your place in a scarred city called home and deciding what kind of man you want to be. This book is an extraordinary work of fiction with Nicole Flattery calling it “the best debut I’ve read in years” and Louise Kennedy praising Magee for “boot[ing] it out of the park” with an “absolutely glorious” novel.
This year’s shortlist is a clear representation of the exciting scope of contemporary storytelling. Each book is as page-turning as the next; the judges are certainly going to have a hard time picking a winner. With the winner being announced on Thursday 24 August you still have time to grab a copy of the six shortlisted books and decide which one you would crown as winner – but good luck because each book is as deserving of the win as the next!