11 November 2009

Guardian First Book Award

The Guardian First Book Award short list was released last week. The award began ten years ago and replaced the Guardian fiction prize which was created in 1965.

The most familiar shortlisted work might be Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness, which has already won the £25,000 Betty Trask award for first-time young Commonwealth novelists. Kent-born Harvey was also shortlisted for the Orange prize and longlisted for the Booker prize with her poignant story about Jake Jameson, an architect whose memories are being lost because of Alzheimer's.

Also shortlisted is The Selected Works of TS Spivet by American Reif Larsen, which was bought for just less than $1m by Penguin after bidding from no less than 10 publishers. The novel's main character is a genius 12-year-old cartographer from Montana and much of its story is told in the maps and diagrams supposedly drawn in the margins by Spivet.

Most of the books on this year's list divided opinions – often dramatically – among members of the Waterstone's reading groups, and this was certainly true with Larsen. The Oxford reading group, in particular, fell in love with it: "They wanted it to go on forever and were astonished that a first novel could be so assured and accomplished."

The third novel is New Zealander Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal, which has already acquired something of a love it or hate it reputation. The novel has two linked narrative threads: one set in a girls' school in the aftermath of a pupil-teacher affair and the other in a drama school where details of the affair are used for the end-of-year production. The Bath reading group praised Catton's writing style for its originality and accessibility, while one Oxford reader remarked: "At last! A book to get lost in."

The other fiction is a collection of 13 short stories by Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean who has spent the last 10 years working as a trade lawyer in Geneva. She began writing seriously after suffering what she called a "severe depression." In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Gappah said: "It was one of those early mid-life crises really. I started asking myself 'What is it that I want from my life?' This question kept haunting me: 'Do I want to be a lawyer who always wanted to be a writer, or do I actually want to be a writer?'"

The result of that inner torment is An Elegy for Easterly, 13 short stories that show different aspects of Zimbabwean life from the shanty towns to the mansions but which also have universal resonances such as betrayal.

The lone work of non-fiction is A Swamp Full of Dollars by Financial Times journalist Michael Peel, which tells the chaotic story of Nigeria and its oil. The book was particularly liked by the London reading group, which was impressed by its accessibility, insight and integrity.