The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award – The Shadow Panel Winner.


For the past three weeks, I have been reading and reviewing The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award Shortlist.  It’s been an incredible experience – to read books that have challenged me, frustrated me, and made me sometimes stop in my tracks and love the words inside them.

As you may or may not know, on Thursday 21st November, I met with Anne , David, Linda and Phoebe at a meeting chaired by Houman Barekat to discuss who we wanted to be the Shadow Panel Winner.  It was a lively discussion, and it was fantastic to finally meet the very people who I knew so well on Twitter and Instagram! I really found it intriguing to see what we all thought of the Shortlist, and at times how similar our views were, but believe me, there were a few instances where we were poles apart in our opinions!

Before I reveal who we chose as our winner, here is a recap of each of the shortlist for you.


Kim Sherwood was born in Camden in 1989 and lives in Bath. She studied Creative Writing at UEA and is now Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England. Her pieces have appeared in MslexiaLighthouse, and Going Down Swinging. Kim began researching and writing Testament, her first novel, after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. It won the 2016 Bath Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.

Testament by Kim from riverrun which is an imprint of Quercus Books, was actually the first book from the Shortlist that I decided to read.

You can read my review here,

If you would like to buy a copy, you can of course buy one from all good bookshops, or online or from the riverrun website here.



Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was published in 2019 in the UK and USA. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.

Yara’s book, is published by fleet, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. It was my next choice to read and review for the Shortlist, and here’s my review of Stubborn Archivist.

If you would like to buy a copy, you can do from all good bookshops, online, or from fleet directly here


Julia Armfield lives and works in London. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in LighthouseAnalog MagazineNeon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018.

Julia’s book of short stories Salt Slow, published by Picador was my third read for the Shortlist, and you can read my review here.

It is available to buy from all good bookshops, online, or from Picador directly here

raymond antrobus twitter816698769..jpg

Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as we as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Raymond’s book of poetry, The Perseverance, is published  by Penned In The Margins and was my final read for the Shortlist.  You can read my review here.

It is available to buy from all good bookshops, online, or you can buy it directly from Penned In The Margins here.

There you have it, the four finalists and the four works we as Shadow Panel Judges had to read and review.



I am very proud and honoured to reveal, that The Sunday Times/University Of Warwick Young Writer Award Shadow Panel Winner Is…

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield from Picador Books!

Many Congratulations to Julia and Picador Books!

I am not ashamed to admit that I am absolutely thrilled with this decision.  I also have to tell you that once I finished this book, as I was writing my review I read some of the stories again, and it just confirmed what I already knew, that they are brilliant.

The panel was unanimous in their praise for Julia’s book, and it was really interesting to see not only how we all loved the same and we all loved different stories, but that we all saw something that spoke to us in them. For me, it was the amazing untapped power that the female protagonists have within them, and that their transformations and experiences show us that we all have the potential within us to achieve what we truly deserve.

I have slowly started to read short story collections recently, and Julia’s book has made me want to read even more.

It is a book I will absolutely recommend endlessly, and is one that undoubtedly can be re-read and treasured.

Trust me when I tell you that this was a really difficult decision, all the works on the shortlist are brilliant, unique works that I would urge you all to read. They are all very different, but the one thing they have in common is that they reveal the wealth of literary talent that is all around us, and that for me, the most important thing I can do as a reader, is challenge myself to read more widely, and take a chance on something completely different.

So, what do you think of the Shadow Panel decision?

The final decision now rests with The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Judges – Andrew Holgate, Kate Clanchy, Victoria Hislop, Gonzalo C. Garcia and Nick Rennison.

The Winner will be announced on 5th December at the London Library, and I wish the judges and the shortlisted authors lots of luck – trust me, it is not an easy choice to make!

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, and of course, to find out who the Overall Winner will be..

The full article about the Shadow Panel is here

You can also read the blogs of the other Shadow Panel Judges to see what they thought too..

Anne Cater at Random Things Through My Letterbox

David Harris at Blue Book Balloon

Linda Hill at Linda’s Book Bag

Phoebe Williams at The Brixton Bookworm

I will be letting you all know what I think about the Winner too, in my final blog post as part of the Shadow Panel (sob!)!


Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below by Steve Denehan

Steve Denehan: Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below

Published By: Cajun Mutt Press

Buy It: Here

What they Say:
Steve Denehan is an extraordinary poet. In this debut collection, he writes about ordinary everyday events in his life and does so in a way that will resonate with the reader. His poetry brings unforgettable impact into small spaces, reveals the fabric of solitude in epic proportions, and tells stories of the moments where life truly exists

What I Say:

I have to admit that the prospect of reviewing poetry is always an unsettling one. How can you do the poet justice when all of their poems mean something to them, and you are constrained by the acceptable length of a blog post!

In Miles of Sky, Steve has written a book of poetry which is accessible and heartfelt. For me, the main driving force behind the selection of these poems is the theme of family – especially the relationship that he has with his daughter Robin. We see how Steve is learning to be a father and discovering all the joy and disappointments that go hand in hand with his caring role. The reader is privy to his thoughts on being a dad at school, while another details his experience of having a daughter at Christmas, and all the joy and stress that being a parent can bring.

In his poem half eaten cookies and carrots, he gives us an insight into what it is like being a member of his family at Christmas time:

“I look at her, bundled into her car seat

fading with every passing streetlight

as we drive toward the Christmases to come”

The poem is successful because it taps into what we all know and understand about Christmas. The need to be part of the family, the traditions and customs that every family has, and the idea that as a father, he is experiencing these with his daughter for the first time. There is a sense of nostalgia and comfort taken from this poem, which makes us not look only to ourselves, but also to those around us to understand what it means to be part of the family.

The poems featured in this collection, have many different themes, but I feel the main one that is subconsciously in all of them, is the idea that underneath our skin and the way we act, we all have the same hopes and fears. It is the belief that we are all constantly trying to find our way in the world when everything around us is changing. Parents are getting older, children are growing up, and our memories constantly changed in the retelling of them.

The poem Dublin airport for me, was a perfect example of this. We see how as a child, Steve would watch the aeroplanes fly above his head, and as all children do, they would not only be absorbed by the sheer size of the planes, but also keep looking at believing that the pilot and the crew would be able to see him. A trip to the airport is seen as a wonderful magical and mystical thing:

“we would watch the planes from the viewing gallery

impossibly huge, almost prehistoric

their rivets gleaming

the pilot setting settling into the cockpits

as if it were not a magical thing”.

Of course, as a child the gigantic aeroplanes, and seemingly mystical and hypnotic airports were things of complete wonder. As you grow up becoming an adult, these ideas lose their appeal, and you’re simply a person getting onto a plane. Life is not exciting anymore. However, when Steve is on a plane, and he looks down and see his mum hanging out the washing, that magical element returns to his life. I found that this poem which reminiscences about the naivety of childhood, (and having looked up at the sky many times as a child to follow the trails of the aeroplanes!) really resonated with me.

Steve’s poetry is very easy to read. Short sharp verses that sing across the page. They take on a rhythm of their own, and it is impossible to read them in your head, because you want to read them out loud. They are at times joyous, at times thoughtful, but always with a very heavy sense of Steve’s personality permeating the poetry.

I have to say for me, the poems I liked the best, were those that focus on his family. You can see how intensely personal this work is to him, and in writing this poetry about his daughter, I had the sense that he was trying to create a legacy for her to look back on and understand what her childhood meant to him. Increasingly, so many of us forget to write down what happened in childhood, and we are relying on the photos we might have taken on our phones rather than some tangible remembrance of our days gone past.

In Miles of Sky Above Us, Miles of Earth Below, Steve has put on paper his innermost thoughts and feelings about what it means to be a father, a son, and an observer of the life around him. It is very poignant to read, intensely personal and is a book of poetry that is imbued with his sense of self and his need to ensure that his family is never forgotten. To make poetry accessible is very difficult, and in this collection, Steve has done just that.

I get the sense as a reader that this work was not an easy one for him to curate, but that in doing so, it has perhaps not only helped us understand about what his life means to him, but has provided him with a tangible body of work that helps him to articulate how he perceives his place in the world and his relationship with his family. It is a wide ranging collection of poetry that is impressive in its scope and ideas, and taps into many themes that will strike a chord with lots of readers.

Thank you to Isabelle Kenyon for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.

Here are the other amazing bloggers taking part in this blog tour. Please do follow them to find out what they thought too.

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist – The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Raymond Antrobus: The Perseverance

Published By: Penned In The Margins

Available to Buy From All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:

An extraordinary debut from a young British-Jamaican poet, The Perseverance is a book of loss, language and praise. One of the most crucial new voices to emerge from Britain, Raymond Antrobus explores the d/Deaf experience, the death of his father and the failure to communicate. Ranging across history, time zones and continents, The Perseverance operates in the in betweens of dual heritages, of form and expression emerging to show us what it means to exist, and to flourish.

What I Say:

I think the idea of reading this collection was something from the start of my experience as a Shadow Judge that I was slightly anxious about. I was aware that Raymond Antrobus had burst onto the British Poetry scene in a blaze of glory, but having to review his collection for the Sunday Times/ University of Warwick Young Writer Award was absolutely out of my comfort zone. The last time I read poetry critically was probably when I was in University over 25 years ago.

Right from the start, and the very first poem, Echo, you are aware as a reader that this is an intensely personal and autobiographical collection from Raymond Antrobus. He is deaf and as if that was not isolating enough, he is also the child of an English mother and a Jamaican father. Raymond Antrobus has always been at the edge of a society that seemingly continues to move all around him, not understanding either his needs or his heritage. How do you attempt to find your place in a world when you are not recognised by it at all?

The Perseverance is an unapologetic debut that not only recounts his own experiences as a deaf British-Jamaican poet, but also makes the reader (as I did) stop and look up the references to other people from history to understand the importance of their inclusion in the work. We learn about his fractured relationship with his father, the life of his family, and there are also poems which feature deaf people who have their own stories to tell. I thought that this was an eclectic mix which worked well – quite simply because it often disrupts the rhythm of the poems, and whereas in one I could understand and appreciate it, others made me stop and read about the subject and then apply that knowledge to my re-reading of them.

What I thought was very clear about the work, is that Raymond Antrobus wants us to listen to him. How can we possibly understand what it means to be deaf, when we are hearing? We cannot possibly know the reality of being deaf – we may be able to make sweeping generalisations, but it is the minutiae, the day to day things that we take for granted that we need someone to articulate for us, to help us truly understand what we need to do to foster inclusion as oppose to exclusion. The addition of sign language symbols, and the redaction of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ which was filled with misconception and ignorance, immediately addressed by his poem After Reading ‘Deaf School’ by the Mississippi

In the poem Dear Hearing World, I felt it was really Antrobus’ manifesto, a way of detailing exactly what the hearing world need to understand in order for us to make any progress. It is raw, visceral and real, borne of a life lived and ignorances exposed. The writing is sublime, the imagery is authentic, and there is the absolute sense that our inability to fully appreciate what barriers we have created in our society, that there is a whole world of experience which has been denied a history.

He says:

“I mulled over long paragraphs because I didn’t know

what a natural break sounded like, you erased

what could have always been poetry

This for me is a theme that runs all through his collection. That you have standing in front of you a man who wants to be heard – not only for his own story, but for all of those other deaf people who have come before and after him. There is no one better qualified to educate others about the reality of being deaf than those who are.

In the title poem of the collection, The Perseverance is the pub where his father spends a lot of his time, with Raymond stood outside, waiting for him to return. Theirs is a difficult relationship – it seems that this is a pattern of behaviour that is usual in their lives, and interestingly, Antrobus is excluded from that world too. He is neither Jamaican nor British, not allowed inside the pub as he is a child, but cannot hear what is going on anyway. His own perseverance is deeper than simply waiting for his Dad to emerge and take him home. Even knowing that he is beaten by hs father, Antrobus seems to simply want to be acknowledged and loved by him. There is no doubt that Antrobus’ father loves him, and is fiercely defensive of his son, but their relationship is far from a traditional one, with his father open about his sexual conquests and his treatment of him is at times upsetting to read.

We learn that Antrobus’ father has dementia, and I thought it was incredibly poignant that the final poem in the collection Happy Birthday Moon, is about that most intimate and traditional idea, of a Dad reading his son a bedtime story. In that moment, where they are completely alone and just being with one another is the most real and exquisite recollection of what every child wants. To be heard.

“I’d like to be the Moon, the bear, even the rain

Dad makes the Moon say something new every night

and we hear each other, really hear each other,

As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.”

Perhaps this is the point of The Perseverance. Antrobus has honestly and unapologetically showed us what his life is like. The passion and determination that permeates the poems in this collection is a way of standing in front of us and asking us to hear each other. Truly hear each other. It is at times, not an easy work to read, and honestly, at times I was frustrated with Antrobus for making me stop to find out what he was talking about. I felt it disrupted my experience as a reader, but it was balanced with moments where I was just blindsided by the most beautiful poetry that just mesemerised me .

The Perseverance is a poetry collection unlike anything I have ever read. In its pages it encompasses so many themes such as love, loss, grief and the unique life that Antrobus has lived. To read it is to be party to his world and his frustations, his realities and his relationships, and his desire to ensure that his history and those of deaf people is no longer sidelined by those who should know better.

Read it and learn from it, let it make you understand the way in which our society has not listened to those who don’t automatically fit in, and then like Antrobus tells us, understand that that we need to really hear each other.

Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney to an English mother and Jamaican father. He is the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Complete Works III and Jerwood Compton Poetry. He is one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education from Goldsmiths, University of London. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum. He has had multiple residencies in deaf and hearing schools around London, as we as Pupil Referral Units. In 2018 he was awarded the Geoffrey Dearmer Award by the Poetry Society (judged by Ocean Vuong). The Perseverance (Penned In The Margins, 2018), was a Poetry Book Society Choice, the winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize and the Ted Hughes Award, and was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award – Salt Slow by Julia Armfield


Julia Armfield: Salt Slow

Published By: Picador

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:
In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge. Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, salt slow considers characters in motion – turning away, turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

What I Say:

“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed”.

When I first started reading Salt Slow, (which by the way has one of the most beautiful covers that I think I have EVER seen}, I found the collection really easy to read, fast paced and extremely accessible.

Women are at the heart of all of these stories, but they hold the power and strength, while men are secondary, disposable characters that don’t really matter. Each of the stories are all so different, but at the same time, Julia Armfield has woven a sense of unease and other worldliness that permeates all of them. The world the characters inhabit feel close enough to ours to be recognisable, but it also feels slightly futuristic too.

In this book of nine short stories, you are absolutely immersed in the world that exists on the edge of ours. In Mantis, a teenage girl slowly morphs into a preying Mantis and uses her power to seduce a young man with devastating consequences. It works so well because it is written in a calm and understated way. Her Mum deals with it all very pragmatically, understanding that this is her fate, and attempts to help her daughter ease the pain of transformation with different creams and balms. Her teenage friends, obsessed with what they look like, and who does what with who, do what teenage girls do – if she doesn’t bother them, they generally leave her alone. This is why it works so well – if she had been marked out as different, and excluded from her world, the story would have been a much more traditional story in the vein of wronged outsider wreaks her revenge. Mantis is all the more powerful for the fact that her difference is accepted, and when her changing body embraces her different physicality and sensuality, you feel the change is constantly bubbling under the surface, and it has almost an air of inevitability which permeates the whole story.

This idea of young women undergoing transformations is an interesting one, and it is a theme which runs through Salt Slow. I loved the notion that these women were all on the cusp of discovering something about themselves, or those who are close to them, and the transformations make them stronger and define who they truly are.

In Formerly Feral, a young girl gains not only a stepmother, but also a wolf as a step-sister after her mother and biological sister leave. The wolf is called Helen, and although the girl is not named, they become closer and start to share similar traits. Their apparent differences serve to bring them together, and the wolf is more of a sister to her as time goes on. Helen understands the isolation and independence that the girl craves, and warns off those who get too close and scare her step-sister. Little by little, Helen and the girl become more alike and are the daughters that her father and step-mother have no qualms showing off to visitors. Julia Armfield’s skill means that this does not seem preposterous at all – because the world the narrative is set in does not treat them as outsiders. This is what makes the whole of Salt Slow so plausible – that everyone in the stories does not react to the seemingly incongruent relationships or happenings, they just accept them for what they are.

I have to say, that there were two stories which really resonated with me. The first was The Great Awake.

Imagine a world where not only does insomnia become a world wide epidemic, but that for those people who cannot sleep, you see a physical manifestation of your Sleep. This Sleep is not necessarily a peaceful being, but one that will make your life as uncomfortable as possible because they don’t rest either. The world is now full not only of people who cannot sleep, but also these beings who occupy even more space in an already disordered world. Trains are full, with Sleeps occupying all the seats, they all walk the streets and time no longer means anything because what’s the point if you can’t delineate day and night by the act of sleeping?

Janey, the protagonist of the story befriends a woman called Leonie in her block. She is a rare creature in that she is still able to sleep through the night, and even though they become friends, Leonie is desperate for a Sleep of her own so she can fit in with everyone else.

The Great Awake is a brilliant story which made me really stop and think about things. I am suffering with insomnia at the moment, and the notion of my sleeplessness as a human like object, is an intriguing concept. How would I react if I could see the very thing that was stopping me from sleeping? Would I want to rant at it, reason with it, or try to get rid of it? Are we all so wired and atttached to our screens and need to be connected 24 hours to the social media and internet that this notion of a world where we can’t switch off and fall asleep is in danger of becoming a reality?

As a teenager, like many others, I was devoted to following different groups – Wham, Culture Club, Wet Wet Wet and Spandau Ballet to name a few (Nearly 49 and not afraid to admit it!), which is why Stop your women’s ears with wax was such a perfect read for me!

It follows a girl band, who has slavishly devoted fans, so much so that they become more like a pack of out of control animals, determined to ensure that they protect their band at any costs. Mona is a young filmaker responsible for documenting the band on tour. The increasingly unsettling and violent devotion of the fans to the group mean that they almost become cultish in their behaviour, animalistic and sneering to anyone – especially any men who get in the way of the progress of the band as they become more and more successful.

All through the story, the power of the teenage girl is seen as key. They are the all encompassing sense of power for driving the story forward as the band move seamlessly through the story trying to be the most successful group they can. It is chilling to read the shared recollections of the people working with the band as they tell the reader what strange things have been happening as the band tour from city to city. A man from a previous gig is found asphyxiated, the tour bus toilets are clogged with feathers, and the crew are sleeping badly and having the same dream.

For me, the sense of hysteria and claustrophobia was entrenched in every page of this story.  It was unnerving to see how the girls are so utterly devoted to the band which holds them in their thrall.  It is as if they are being subliminally instructed to bind together and deal with any men who obstruct the band in their mission to be successful in which ever way they choose.

Salt Slow is a delicious short story collection that deserves to be savoured and re-read, as I think it is one of those books that will reveal something different to my reading experience every time I open it. Sharp, witty and defiantly different, Julia Armfield unapologetically puts women at the front and centre of all of the stories, and dares you to challenge them as to why they shouldn’t be.


Julia Armfield lives and works in London. She is a fiction writer and occasional playwright with a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature from Royal Holloway University. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and The Stockholm Review. She was commended in the Moth Short Story Prize 2017, longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Prize 2018 and is the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist – Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Yara Rodrigues Fowler – Stubborn Archivist

Published By: Fleet

Available From All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say:
A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.

What I Say:

“Love your child and give them everything, but build a life that is your own first.

This is what your mum had told you, telepathically, all your life.

But you weren’t sure you wanted a husband

Or a child

Or to wrap your life around another person’s life”

Of all the works I have been asked to read as a Shadow Judge for The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award, the Stubborn Archivist is the novel I already knew about. I was lucky enough to see Yara in conversation with the amazing Zeba Talkhani (Author of My Past Is A Foreign Country) and Daniel Hahn at the Henley Literary Festival earlier this year, and it was a captivating and illuminating talk. It asked what does identity, family and belonging mean to us when you are not sure where you fit in the world.

I was thrilled when I found out that Stubborn Archivist was on the Shortlist, and have to say that it is a novel I won’t forget for a long time. It is unlike anything I have read before in terms of structure and style, and that passion and emotion comes through every page, in an inexhaustable supply of memories, family and home.

Words tumble out of pages, large spaces are left, pages are blank, and the spaces in between words and chapters are just as important as the words that are printed. There is dialogue in Portuguese with no translation – why should there be? This is the Archivist’s story and her language should not have to be explained.

There is the constant refrain of : ‘What’s your name? He repeated the syl-la-bles.’ Showing us how having to constantly spell your name means you are not totally part of the society you live in – you are here, but not quite seamlessly. The frustation of language as an impediment to relationships and closeness peppers this book, whilst at the same time the refusal to compromise identity as a means to fit in more easily is always present, and it is at times gloriously defiant.

The construction of our identities and remembrances add to the authenticity of the novel – memories are not neat, linear, resolvable and formulaic structures. They meander and link seemingly unrelated pieces of information and time, short handed by the people who remember as they recollect the past, as families talk about jokes only they understand, of experiences they have shared and memories that exist only for them. It is raw, real and very truthful which is why it works so well, and always in the back of our minds is the notion of the protagonist having to heal her body which has been traumatised- something we discover in the most understated but most powerful way.

The Stubborn Archivist is the female narrator of the novel. She is the daughter of a Brazilian mother and an English father, and as we follow her forwards and backwards through her life, we start to understand who she is and how her life experiences have helped shape her. It is the sense that she doesn’t quite fit in to either culture that drives the narrative forward – in England she is living, learning and loving, whilst her time spent in Brazil means she goes back to be with her grandparents Vovô and Vovó who want her to remember her roots and where her heritage is. One scene that really stuck in my mind is when the Narrator is visiting Brazil and someone assumes she doesn’t speak Portuguese, because she is living in England, and she has to assure them that she does – that although geographically she is removed from them, emotionally she is still part of that culture too.

This for me is the whole crux of the novel, that she inhales life in London – the growing up, the all consuming friendships with Jade, Gee and Elena, the teenage way of just being with each other and knowing what each other needs, the desire to be part of the world around you so that you belong in that moment. Yet similarly when she is in Brazil, she is very much still a Brazilian girl who happens to live in London. As she grows up surrounded by the love of her grandparents Vovô and Vovó and Aunt Paula, they are thrilled she has come to see them but they also feel slightly displaced, as they are not part of her everyday life.

The Stubborn Archivist is not only her story, but that of her family too. We see how her parents met, the way in which two cultures come together – when the Brazilian in-laws come to the United Kingdom for Christmas and how they all learn to co-exist, each with different expectations, but neither wanting to upset the other. The most endearing scenes are tinged with awkwardness where no one quite knows what to say, but what binds them together is the unspoken familial connections we all yearn for.

One of the many things I loved about this novel, is that we are never really able to say that we absolutely know the Stubborn Archivist, because what we learn is what she has allowed us to read. That really resonated with me – how often have we kept things hidden, behaved one way with a certain group of friends, and another with someone else. Personal history is always going to be subjective, and that is what makes this novel so relatable – whether we realise it or not, we are the Stubborn Archivists of our histories.

The Stubborn Archivist is a novel that surprised and enthralled me from the very first page. Hand on heart, I wouldn’t have picked it up had I seen it in a Bookshop, but do you know what? I am so very glad I have read it, and isn’t that what reading is all about? The notion that as well as falling back on the familiar and the loved, that sometimes we need to read outside of our comfort zone to see what else can inspire and educate us.

The Stubborn Archivist has absolutely and defiantly achieved that. It has made me aware of the legacy I will leave behind and the stories others will remember about me – and I believe that is what truly inspiring writing does.


Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was published in 2019 in the UK and USA. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.

The Sunday Times/University Of Warwick Young Writer Award – Testament by Kim Sherwood



Kim Sherwood: Testament

Published by: riverrun

Available online and from all good bookshops.

What They Say:

The letter was in the Blue Room – her grandfather’s painting studio, where Eva spent the happier days of her childhood. After his death, she is the one responsible for his legacy – a legacy threatened by the letter she finds. It is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have found the testimony her grandfather gave after surviving the labour camps in Austria. And, since he was one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century artists, they want to exhibit it. But Joseph Silk – leaving behind József Zyyad – remade himself long ago. As Eva begins to uncover the truth, she understands the trauma, and the lies, that have haunted her family. She will unravel what happened to József and his brother, who came to England as refugees. One never spoke of his past – the other couldn’t let it go. Their story – and that of the woman they both loved – is in her hands. Revealing it would change her grandfather’s hard- won identity. But it could also change the tide of history. This testament can lend words to wordless grief, and teach her how to live. 

What I Say:

“It’s not a choice,’ László said “what’s a man without memory?’

Silk told him: “Happier”.

To be asked to be a Shadow Judge for The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award is a huge honour, but when faced with the shortlist sitting in front of you, all of the books you cannot wait to devour, the issue is which one do you choose?

How will my choice appear to others – is there some reason why I chose this one and not that? Does that mean I was most keen to read the one I picked, or is it that I wanted to get the longest book read first?

I decided to read Testament, because I believed that I knew about the Holocaust and the Second World War. I naively thought my limited reading of a history textbook in sixth form could adequately educate me as to the impact and brutality of this war on the Jewish people and the world.

Testament is a novel that unapologetically shows you the human reality of war.  It is not on the battlefields or the war rooms that this novel’s war is fought, but in the towns and countryside, in the homes and the lives of those ordinary people who were at the mercy of the German soldiers.

Eva Butler is the granddaughter of the famous painter Joseph Silk who has recently passed away, and as her father John refuses to help, it is left to Eva to deal with his estate and possessions he has left behind.  Eva is a documentary maker, and before Silk’s death, they were in the process of making a film together about him. She has always been aware that he was once József Zyyad, a young Hungarian Jew who together with his brother László survived the Holocaust, but he refused to revisit that part of his history.

When Eva is going through Silk’s possessions, she finds a letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, who wanted to talk to him so they could add his testimony that he gave during the Second World War to create a history of those who were in the Holocaust.  Whereas László was now in a place where he wants to remember what has happened to him, Silk wanted no part of it.  He wanted to forget his life during that time, and any attempt Eva had previously made to try to get him to talk about his life before he arrived in the United Kingdom is ignored.

To say that Testament is just a straightforward novel about a woman’s search to discover the truth about her grandfather simply does not do it justice.  It is a novel about the human spirit, the connections that families have, and how in times of extreme suffering and devastation that all we seek as humans is the notion that we are belong to the human race either through blood, or a shared experience however difficult that might be.

As Eva travels to Berlin to meet the people in the Jewish Museum, you absolutely feel Eva’s unease and confusion as she realises in reading the letter, she may have uncovered something in Silk’s story that nothing could have prepared her for.  In making this choice, to uncover the truth about her family, that the whole of her own history could be about to change forever.

The narrative moves between Eva’s story and that of József and László, punctuated by pages of questions that József was asked which formed part of his testimony. The pages are placed in the novel without warning or context, and bring into focus both the reality of what the brothers went through, but also the enormity of the devastation that War has brought for everyone.  Life for the brothers during the war is unimaginably cruel, they are treated no better than animals, and their Jewish heritage is what marks them out as fair game for the German soldiers. Men are shot as soldiers ‘test’ their guns, they are forced to work in mines waist deep in water for eleven hour shifts, with only the water that engulfs them as the way of staying alive. They are moved around the country like a pack of animals that have no value other than to serve as amusement and inconvenience for the German officers.

This is not a sanitised, convenient version of the Holocaust experience.  Kim Sherwood unflinchingly challenges us to read the stories of József, László and many others, and to try and understand the unimaginable horror and degradation these people went through simply due to their religion. It makes us see the true inhumanity of war, and dares us to look away, knowing to do so would let these people down.

For me, the most emotional part of the novel was the aftermath of the Second World War.  László and József have been separated, and László, with a girl called Zuzka has managed to get to the Lake District, and become one of the Windermere Boys.  For László and Zuzka, the war may have ended, but they still fall between society’s cracks, not quite fitting in in England, but unable to return to their homeland either.  The relationship between them is gentle and tender, and although both have been changed by what they have seen and experienced, they slowly turn to each other for comfort, to feel a human connection again.  However, when József manages to find his way back to his brother, Zuzka realises that it is József she is truly attracted to.  They are unable to hide their feelings, and as they edge ever closer, László realises that he can do nothing except watch the two people he loves most in the world find each other with devastating consequences for all of them.

Eva is also finding that as she delves deeper into the past her Grandfather fought so hard to hide, that she truly knew very little about him, and his testimony reveals a former life that turns everything she has ever known upside down.  When she visits Berlin to find out more about Silk’s life, she is regarded as a Jew first and a person second and starts to understand the notion of being marked out from the crowd, and the importance of our personal histories as a testament for future generations.

Testament is at times a very difficult and emotional read.  It is a novel which is filled with beautifully poetic and measured prose, which draws you in close and then when it switches to the most horrific scenes described in a straightforward and unemotional way, it is all the more shocking and unnerving. We cannot understand man’s inhumanity to man, and bear our own witness to a world we know can never be allowed to exist again. The history and massive themes it tackles within its pages are complex and the relationships contained in the pages are far from easy. It is due to Kim Sherwood’s immense skill as a writer, that as a reader you become so invested in Eva and Silk’s story that you feel you owe it to them both to not only read it right to the very end, but to also do your own research of the world Silk has tried so hard to forget.

However, for me, at the heart of Testament, and what is so evident in every single page, is a young woman’s desire to truly understand the history of her Grandfather who she loved so deeply.

Follow #youngwriterawardshadow  and @youngwriteryear on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award Shortlist, the authors and what the Shadow Panel think too.


Kim Sherwood was born in Camden in 1989 and lives in Bath. She studied Creative Writing at UEA and is now Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England. Her pieces have appeared in Mslexia, Lighthouse, and Going Down Swinging. Kim began researching and writing Testament, her first novel, after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. It won the 2016 Bath Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Author’s Club Best First Novel Award. 




Grandmothers by Salley Vickers



Salley Vickers: Grandmothers

Published by: Penguin Viking

Available from online and all good bookshops from November 7th


What They Say:

Grandmothers is the story of three very different women and their relationship with the younger generation: fiercely independent Nan, who leads a secret life as an award-winning poet when she is not teaching her grandson Billy how to lie; glamorous Blanche, deprived of the company of her beloved granddaughter Kitty by her hostile daughter-in-law, who finds solace in rebelliously taking to drink and shop lifting; and shy, bookish Minna who in the safety of shepherd’s hut shares with her surrogate granddaughter Rose her passion for reading. The outlook of all three women subtly alters when through their encounters with each other they discover that the past is always with us and that we go on learning and changing until the very end.


What I Say:

There’s more than one kind of relative,’ Nan said. ‘There are kindred spirits, to my mind closer than blood ties often.’

I read Salley Vickers’ previous novel The Librarian last year, and loved the way in which you were drawn in to a world that was so far from my own, but engaged me totally and was observed with such tenderness and clarity.

When I was asked to take part in the BlogTour for Grandmothers, I was really looking forward to savouring Salley’s elegant prose and real characters once again.

Grandmothers is the story of three women; Nan, Minna and Blanche, and we are observers of their lives as women who have all loved, lived and lost and are now Grandmothers.

Nan looks after her grandson Billy, and is constantly both frustrated by how chaotic her son Alec and daughter in law Virginia are in their approach to parenting, but she also relishes the time that she has with Billy. She may seemingly be abrasive, with little or no tolerance for those who do not fit in with her view of the world, but she is also an intensely intelligent woman who is a successful poet. Her desire to be able to write in peace and channel her creativity is thwarted by the time she has to look after Billy, but her love and desire to give her grandson stability and guidance means she knows that she is doing the right thing.

We learn that Nan has never got over her first true love Hamish, and she has channelled her thoughts and desires into the poetry that consumes her dreams and provides her with a creative outlet. Nan is biding her time until she can be with Hamish again, but in the meantime, her devotion to and relationship with Billy provides her with the daily routine and connection to the world around her.

Blanche is also a devoted Grandmother to her two grandchildren, but she has a special connection with teenage Kitty. However an ill judged remark by her grandson has given her acerbic daughter in law the moral upper hand and has decided to restrict the contact Blanche has with them. As a result, even though she is comfortably off, Blanche has started to shoplift and drink more than she should. This for me raised many interesting questions about Blanche, and indeed the large number of women today who adore their Grandchildren but are prevented from spending time with them by their children, and how they deal with a situation that is seemingly irreperable.

Blanche’s sadness and bewilderment at what she is doing is increasingly evident through the chapters. It is as if she is numb within her own life, and having settled for a marriage with a man she loved, but was not in love with, and being denied time with her family, she is desperate to feel something, anything to get her through her days.

Minna is not related to Rose, having met her when she worked at her school as a teaching assistant, but is the closest thing to a granddaughter she has. Minna is slightly removed from society in that she lives alone in a Shepherd’s Hut, and leads a simple and plain life on her own. However, her relationship with Rose brings her joy, and their shared passion for Reading not only helps connect them, but also gives Rose the comfort she needs away from the family home, as her parents’ marriage is starting to crumble.

These three seemingly separate women are connected not only by the bond they have with the children, but also by the lives they have lived and the society they are part of.

Older women are often deemed invisible by the world around them, and in this novel, Salley Vickers unapologetically places them right in front of us, and makes us realise that their age does not make them less valuable, rather that these women should be respected and celebrated for the life they have led and the wisdom they have gained.

There were so many things about Grandmothers that resonated with me. As the narrative moves effortlessly backwards and forwards through Nan, Minna and Blanche’s lives, I absolutely understood their frustrations at feeling like they didn’t quite fit in any more through no fault of their own. Their worth was measured in how available they were to take on the care of their grandchildren without a thought for whether or not it stopped them from living their own lives.

It was also a clever plot device to have all the women gradually meet each other in moments where they fleetingly intersect with each other’s lives before starting to forge their friendships. I kept willing them all to get together, but it is testament to Salley’s skill as a writer that she kept them apart until just the right moment.

For me, the fact that the women were not paragons of virtue, that they had faults and were trying to get through their lives as best as they could endeared them more to me. The women are relatable because they act, feel and respond like we do, and that makes us feel closer to them and we want to see them happy too.

Grandmothers is one of those novels that when you start it, you don’t want it to end. Salley Vickers has written a book that deserves to be read slowly and savoured, filled with evocative descriptions and characters you really care about. You might not always understand the choices they make, but you only want them all to finally find what makes them truly happy.

This is not simply a trite story about three women who are Grandmothers, but instead is a passionate and vital read about women who have forged their own paths and eventually learn to have confidence in themselves and the creative, emotional and personal paths they have taken.

I loved it.


Thank you so much to Hannah at Viking Books UK for my gifted copy, and please do have a look to see what these other brilliant bloggers are saying about Grandmothers too.

The Sunday Times/University Of Warwick Young Writer of The Year Award – 2019 Shortlist Revealed.


I am hoping that you have all been excited as I have to find out which authors have been shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of The Year Award 2019!

It is an amazing and intriguing shortlist, featuring authors who will entertain and educate you, challenge your perceptions and preconceptions and draw you completely into their worlds.

Are you ready?


Want to go and make a cup of coffee first?

Is the suspense killing you?


It is my privilege and honour to reveal the four shortlisted authors:



I am incredibly excited to read and review these books, and to discuss them with you and my fellow Shadow Judges.

So, the works are:

Testament by Kim Sherwood – Published By riverrun

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus – Published By Penned In The Margins

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues-Fowler – Published By Fleet/Little, Brown

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield – Published By Picador

Here is a little more about each book.


Testament by Kim Sherwood from riverrun tells the story of Eva and her relationship with her Grandfather.

She is making a film about his life, and when he passes away, Eva discovers a letter from The Jewish Museum in Berlin asking if they can use his testament of Holocaust experiences.  Eva realises her Grandfather Silk endured many things during the Holocaust, and in uncovering his unspoken history, she is forced to confront her own. By exploring the past, Eva will change the future of her family forever.

I haven’t read this one, and am so looking forward to losing myself in this novel. It ticks all my historical fiction boxes, and am always interested in learning about the lives of those whose unheard voices form such an important part of the world around us.

I will of course, be blogging about Testament and all the books on the Shortlist, and hope you join in the discussion too.


The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus from Penned in the Margins, is a book of poetry which is also his debut work.

It is a collection of Raymond’s life experiences about language, history and identity, and also is a profoundly personal work which details the reality of being a deaf person and all the judgement that brings. The Perseverance is about Raymond’s relationship with his family, the importance of communication and the things that are not said as much as those that are.

I have to admit, that I was slightly nervous about the idea of reading and reviewing a collection of poetry, although I love reading it. Suffice to say, that I have started dipping in as I couldn’t wait, and I know it is going to be an awe inspiring book that will create lots of discussion.

I can already see the immense power that Raymond’s words have on the page and am ready to educate myself about a world I currently know nothing of.



Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler from Fleet/Little, Brown is the only book on the Shortlist that I have prior knowlege of.

I was lucky enough to see Yara in conversation with Zeba Talkhani and Daniel Hahn at the Henley Literary Festival earlier this year.  The passion and emotion with which she spoke about her life experiences and the search for identity when you don’t apparently fit in to the culture you live in was intensely moving.

The Stubborn Archivist is a novel that uses other people’s perceptions and conversations to form a picture of the protagonist. At the same time she is attempting to find her own identity in a world trying to find a way to be seen, and she is also dealing with the knowledge her body has been traumatised. It is told in fragments and challenges the preconceptions we have about a traditional novel.

I know it is going to be a unique and thought provoking insight into the meaning of identity, culture, self and belonging.


Salt Slow by Julia Armfield from Picador, is a new title to me.

It is a collection of short stories, which uses the body in all its forms as its inspiration. I am being completely honest when I tell you that short stories are not something that I would usually pick up, however, as part of being on the Shadow Panel, this is as much a chance for me to put aside my own preconceptions, and to challenge myself to read more widely.

I have to say that the whole premise of Julia’s book just make me wants to start reading it now! The notion that the everyday world is mixed with the mystical and gothic one is just the sort of genre I love – the sense of unease and tension is an interesting and unsettling one.

I will be sharing my thoughts with you on my blog and Twitter and Instagram, along with the rest of the Shadow Panel Judges.

Well, there we are! What do you think? Have you read any? Are you like me when I see a Shortlist and want to get hold of copies of them right away and follow it (I do it all the time!)

I am really excited to start reading all these titles – they may be outside my comfort zone, but that makes it even more interesting as a reader and Shadow Judge as I will be learning about myself and challenging my ideas about fiction and form. I have to say when I found out which books were on the Shortlist, it made me want to stop and read them all at once!

Over the coming weeks, I will be posting my reviews on my blog, and keeping you all updated as to how I am getting on. I would love to hear what you think, and don’t forget to see what Anne, David, Linda and Phoebe are saying too.

If you want to get involved, please do use #youngwriterawardshadow to chat to us, if there is anything you want to know, or even so you can read along with us all too!

You can also read more about the Award and the Shortlist in more detail here

I will be posting my very first review soon – now my only problem is deciding which one to start first..!

Lots of love,




The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award


I am, as always, going to be completely honest with you all about what news I have to tell you.

When I first received an email asking if I would be interested in being a Shadow Panel Judge for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought it was an elaborate phishing email!

Someone had obviously watched my social media, clocked my love of reading and talking about books, and I was sure they would tell me that in return for me depositing a sum of money into account offshore somewhere, I would of course be a Shadow Judge on one of the most well known literary awards.

The thing is, after replying, the email was totally legitimate!

I am very honoured, a little bit flustered, and quite a bit speechless, to tell you all that I am going to be a Shadow Judge for the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award!

It has been so difficult not to say anything to you all, but at last I don’t have to worry about saying something I shouldn’t!

Just in case you don’t know much about The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, here’s what you need to know..

It’s an annual award of £5,000 for the best book – fiction, poetry, non-fiction or anything else published in the last year by a writer under 35 and there are three prizes of £500 each for the runners-up. The previous winners include Adam Weymouth, Sally Rooney, Max Porter in recent years, and Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters and Robert MacFarlane have also been recipients of this Award. The prize also signed up The British Council as its international partner in 2017.

The University Of Warwick also offers each year’s winner a not only a ten week residency at the University,  but also year round digital support as well.

I am going to be joined on the Shadow Panel by these amazing bookbloggers too:

Anne Cater who is at Random Things Through My Letterbox

David Harris who is at Bluebookballoon

Linda Hill who is at Linda’s Book Bag

Phoebe Williams who is at The Brixton Bookworm

It’s going to be a fabulous experience, and am so looking forward to us all getting together to decide our Winner in November!

We will be using the hashtag #YoungWriterAwardShadow to keep you all updated.. please do follow us and our hashtag, and if you want to ask any questions, read along with the list, or want to know something, let us know. After all, who doesn’t love to talk about books?

We are acting as the Shadow Panel, but of course there are the 2019 Official Judges too.

They are authors Kate Clanchy, and Victoria Hislop and the panel is completed by the Literary Editor of The Sunday Times Andrew Holgate

In case you are interested, and want to know what we are doing and when, here are some key dates for you:

The Shortlist will be revealed on Sunday 3rd November.

The Shadow Panel Winner will be announced on Thursday 28th November.

The Prize Giving Ceremony and Winner Announcement will be on Thursday 5th December at London Library.

Over the next month, I hope you will join me as I read, review and talk about not only the four shortlisted books, but also show you behind the scenes as to what it is like to be a Shadow Judge for this Award!

So there you have it!  Am still having to pinch myself that it’s really happening, and that this is not all a bookish dream..!

I am so excited not only to read, review and judge the shortlist, but also to be part of such a prestigious award and to work with brilliant and passionate book lovers too!

Here’s hoping you all follow along and do please tell us what you think about the shortlist and I’ll be talking a lot about this on Twitter and Instagram- it’s really important to me that you all feel part of this too!

Now, am off to have a lie down and perhaps pinch myself again as I wait to get ready for the Shortlist, and to find out which authors I will be reading over the next few weeks….

Lots of love,




Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

Sonia Velton – Blackberry and Wild Rose

Published By – Quercus Books

Available Online and From All Good Bookshops.


What The Blurb Says:

WHEN ESTHER THOREL, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

INSIDE THE THORELS’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

IT IS SILK that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.

THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.


What I Say:

But the world turns on a sixpence and our lives shifted the moment she walked through the door. She was like a cat sidling in uninvited and looking about.”

I am always completely honest with you all about my reading and blogging, and I am not going to hide the fact that recently, my reading had been a bit of a lost cause!

When Ella from Quercus kindly offered to send me a copy of Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton  – honestly – I wasn’t holding out much hope, and was already worrying about what I was going to tell Ella about why I couldn’t review it!

The thing is, the minute I started, I knew it was just what I needed to help me want to start reading again, and to finally feel more like a reader than a machine!

Blackberry and Wild Rose is a clever and intelligent novel, filled with evocative writing, and two female protagonists who may come from two entirely different worlds, but are  more alike than they would ever admit.

Sara Kemp is a young woman who after arriving in Spitalfields in 1768, is met by a woman called Mrs Swann who offers her a place to stay and rest.  Unfortunately, The Wig and Feathers turns out to be a brothel, and Sara is effectively kept prisoner by Mrs Swann who tells Sara she has to pay back the money she has accrued on her bed and board.  Sara has to keep working to attempt to pay off her debt, which of course is impossible.

Sara quickly realises she is at the mercy of Mrs Swann and the men who use her, and little by little, Sara seems to disassociate from her body and feel nothing. That is until one day a client treats her so badly she knows she needs to find a way to escape her existence, because simply existing is all she is doing.

Esther Thorel is seemingly the answer to Sara’s prayers. The wife of a respected Huguenot Silk Trader, a woman who is keen to be seen as charitable and kind to those less fortunate, dispensing bibles and food to those who need it, Esther is the sort of woman that Sara believes can help her escape her damaged world.

When Sara goes to Esther’s house to ask her to help, Esther’s curiosity and desire to be seen to be a benefactress of Spitalfields that she decides to employ Sara and welcome her as a servant in her household.

This seemingly selfless action by Esther is the start of her whole world turning upside down.

Esther’s silk trader husband Elias is determined to make as much money as possible, and as well as having many men weaving for him in houses all round London, he hires Bisby Lambert, a talented journeyman silk weaver to use the loom in the garret of his house to produce his master piece. Apparently in exchange for the chance for Bisby to be admitted to the Weaver’s Company, and Thorel to get the chance to sell a figured silk for a large amount of money.

Already, there is an unsettling shift in the Thorel Household. A new maid and a journeyman in their house means that the lives of the Thorels will never be the same again.  Although Esther may have believed that Sara’s gratitude to her would mean that she had a supportive and hard working maid, she completely underestimates Sara’s determination to not settle for what she has been given, and instead she wants to be brought futher into Esther’s world as her lady’s maid, so she can become indispensible to her.

Esther may seem that she is living a blessed life, with a rich husband and a beautiful home, but right from the start, we are very aware that all is not as it seems in the Esther Thorel’s world.  A keen artist, who loves to paint, but is also fascinated by the world her husband works in, and wants to design her own silk. He dismisses her entirely and tells her to be satisfied with her world and that is all as a woman she can handle.

Frustrated by the limits that other people put on her, dissatisfied with her marriage, and aware that her husband is more interested in the maid Moll than he really should be, Esther decides she wants to turn her painting of Blackberry and Wild Rose into a sumptuous silk and needs Bisby’s help to do so. Their relationship is beautifully played out, in an understated and controlled way, that serves to add to the intensity and frustration Esther feels about how she has to behave appropriately when faced with feeling genuine passion for the first time in a long time.

Similarly Sara is easing her way into Esther’s life, becoming the one person who is a constant and seemingly unwavering support. However, we as the reader are aware how although Sara may have left behind her life in a brothel, she is still controlled by others, without a voice of her own. Interestingly, Sara is fully aware of it too – and she is determined to change it.

This is an interesting theme that is deftly woven through the pages of this novel – that women are a commodity to be traded and owned, irrespective of class and age, and that a woman’s body is judged not only on appearance, but also by the ability to have children. Esther is unable to conceive and is judged by society for it, Sara falls pregnant but due to her social standing and unmarried status, she is judged by others who decide that she is not fit to keep her baby.

Motherhood is for me a recurring issue which runs all through Blackberry and Wild Rose, as does the notion of what being a good mother means. Esther has had an uneasy relationship with her mother, and is now denied the chance to be one, while Sara falls pregnant and when she has her baby daughter, she fully understands what it means to be a mother, and that how from now on her daughter has to be at the heart of every choice she makes.

As the novel weaves its way between the narratives of the women, as a reader we start to understand their decisions more clearly. There is an uneasy and at times strained relationship between the Esther and Sara, but they are united in the knowledge that both have seen each other at their most vulnerable and raw. Slowly they edge towards a common understanding and shared empathy and the novel gains an additional layer because of it. It is interesting to see how they are also the main characters, and that the men are secondary to them in terms of plot and character.

In Blackberry and Wild Rose, Sonia has written a beautifully pitched and elegant debut novel, filled with language and descriptions that are evocative and considered. It is also fascinating to see how relevant Esther and Sara’s stories are for women in the present day, and how far we still have to go to achieve the same rights and recognition as men.

I think that Blackberry and Wild Rose is the perfect novel to lose yourself in as the nights draw in. It is in Sonia’s skill as a writer that you are absolutely absorbed into a world that may have been part of Britain’s history centuries ago, but that feels so contemporary and necessary today. It is Esther and Sara’s story, and quite rightly so.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Ella Patel at Quercus Books a gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.