Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent might have missed out on the big literary prizes this year, but her tale of a 19th-century amateur naturalist on the trail of a mythical beast is the novel of the year for booksellers at the UK’s largest book chain.
On 8 November, Waterstones announced an eclectic shortlist of titles for its book of the year award, with The Essex Serpent the only novel up for the prize. Contenders are nominated by Waterstones booksellers, who are asked to name “the book they find truly outstanding and which they have felt most pride in recommending and selling in the last year”. The chain said Perry’s novel was by far the most nominated title. “Reviewers heaped praise on the book,” said Waterstones. “Only the judges of the literary prizes have been unswayed by it.”
Also nominated are JK Rowling’s bestselling play script, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Paul Kalanithi’s memoir about life following a terminal cancer diagnosis, When Breath Becomes Air, and the long-lost Beatrix Potter story The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, discovered in the Victoria and Albert museum and illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Christopher de Hamel’s journey through the world of rare manuscripts, Meeting With Remarkable Manuscripts, makes the cut, too, alongside the BBC correspondent Emma Jane Kirby’s account of the Italian optician who rescued dozens of refugees from the sea in 2013, The Optician of Lampedusa.
A Waterstones panel headed by James Daunt, the chain’s managing director, will now choose a winner from the shortlist, with the title to be backed across the company’s hundreds of stores. Sales of last year’s winner, the sumptuously illustrated picture book The Fox and the Star, by Coralie Bickford-Smith, increased by more than 5,000% following its win.
Daunt hinted that The Optician of Lampedusa might be his choice this year, saying it had “a quiet power”, and he added: “Our booksellers time and again nominate a highly eclectic list. This year, only the inclusion of the de facto patron saint of booksellers, JK Rowling, was predictable,” he said. “Praise be to her, but I encourage all to look closely at the other wonderful books we shortlist.”