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6 October 2021

Goldsmiths Prize 2021 shortlist: The six most cutting-edge novelists writing today

The £10,000 award, run in association with the New Statesman, celebrates fiction that “breaks the mould and extends the possibilities of the novel form”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On 6 October the Goldsmiths Prize announced its shortlist of ground-breaking novels by British and Irish writers. The £10,000 award, run in association with the New Statesman, celebrates fiction that “breaks the mould and extends the possibilities of the novel form”.

Leone Ross makes the shortlist with her first novel in 22 years. Ross’s This One Sky Day, an exuberant work of magical realism that was 15 years in the making, is one of six books to be shortlisted for the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize. Ross’s third novel – following the Orange Prize-longlisted All the Blood is Red (1996) and Orange Laughter (1999) – follows a pair of star-crossed lovers over the course of one day on a fictional Caribbean archipelago. 

Ross, who was born in England and raised in Jamaica, is joined on the shortlist by two debut novelists. Rebecca Watson, assistant arts editor at the Financial Times, has been shortlisted for little scratch, a wildly experimental book that is also set over the course of one day, and which gets inside the head of a protagonist living in the aftermath of sexual assault. The reader inhabits her thoughts as she carries out administrative jobs at her desk, the typography skipping across the page rhythmically, verse-like.

The shortlist’s other debut novelist is Natasha Brown, who has worked for a decade in financial services. At 100 pages, Assembly is the shortest novel on the list. Powerful and taut, it follows a black British woman as she prepares to attend a garden party at her white boyfriend’s family estate. The Goldsmiths Prize judge and New Statesman contributing writer Johanna Thomas-Corr described Assembly as “a small but blistering take on the British elite and its poisonous relationship with immigration, work and sexual politics”. 

Isabel Waidner is the only author on this year’s shortlist to have previously been nominated for the prize: We Are Made of Diamond Stuff was on the shortlist in 2019. Their third novel Sterling Karat Gold follows Sterling after they are arrested one morning. The book, surreal yet prescient, acts as an inquiry into the effects of state violence on gender-nonconforming, working class and black people.  

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Also nominated is Checkout 19, the second book by Claire-Louise Bennett, who grew up in Wiltshire, lives in Ireland and was in 2013 awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize. Bennett’s unnamed protagonist pieces together memories from her time at school and university, spinning a hallucinogenic tale where certainty and uncertainty collide to become one and the same thing. It is an ode to reading and an exploration of the fickle nature of storytelling. 

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A Shock by Dublin-born Keith Ridgwayauthor of Hawthorn & Child, completes the shortlist. Novelist and Goldsmiths judge Kamila Shamsie called it “a novel of in-between places that keeps the reader off-balance to surprising, intelligent and sometimes eerie effect”. 

“These books are unabashedly singular and unafraid to take risks; side by side they represent the most exhilarating fiction of the year,” said the memoirist and fiction writer Nell Stevens, who is this year’s chair of judges. Alongside Thomas-Corr and Shamsie, the judging panel is completed by Fred D’Aguiar, a novelist, poet and professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles.  

The shortlist announcement followed a lecture, “My Study Hates Your Study”, delivered online by Lucy Ellmann, the winner of the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize for Ducks, Newburyport. Previous winners of the prize include M John Harrison, for The Sunken Land Begins to Rise AgainEimear McBride, for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Ali Smith, for How To Be Both.

The authors have been invited to present online readings, hosted by the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre, on 20 October. The winner of the prize will be announced at an online ceremony on 10 November. That person will then appear online at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 November. 

The 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist in full: 

  • Claire-Louise Bennett, Checkout 19 (Jonathan Cape) 
  • Natasha Brown, Assembly (Hamish Hamilton) 
  • Keith Ridgway, A Shock (Picador) 
  • Leone Ross, This One Sky Day (Faber & Faber) 
  • Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold (Peninsula Press) 
  • Rebecca Watson, little scratch (Faber & Faber).