Fiona McFarlane has won the £30,000 International Dylan Thomas prize for her “deliciously unsettling” short story collection, The High Places.
Flitting across continents, eras, and genres, McFarlane’s 13 stories examine the spectrum of emotional life, with moments of uneasy anticipation, domestic contentment and ominous desperation. Praised as “deliciously unsettling” by the Observer, The High Places includes stories as varied as a scientist living on a small island with only a colossal squid called Mabel and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company, a middle aged couple going on a disastrous holiday with friends in Greece, and an Australian farmer who turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a debilitating drought.
The High Places is the third short story collection to win the prize, which is for the best work of English-language literary fiction – poetry, drama or prose – by a writer of 39 or under, marking Thomas’s death shortly after his 39th birthday.
McFarlane, who is now 39, has been likened to Flannery O’Connor and Patricia Highsmith. She has only been published once before: her debut novel The Night Guest, about an ageing woman succumbing to dementia who begins to believe her home is stalked by a tiger, won the inaugural Voss Literary prize in Australia in 2014. It was also shortlisted for Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, as well as the Guardian first book award in the UK.
Chair of judges Prof Dai Smith, from Swansea University, said there were “echoes of Thomas’s work” in her range. “Her stories range from the surreal to quizzical, tales of naturalism and domestic tragedies, with some of them being very funny indeed,” he added. “Dylan Thomas, in his short stories particularly, hit all those notes, from really mad, dark comic surrealism, to terribly moving empathetic stories about his Swansea contemporaries.”
Smith said the judges had “vigorous discussions” when considering the six-book shortlist, which included novels The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Pigeon by Alys Conran and The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasm; Luke Kennard’s poetry collection Cain; and short story collection Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink – but McFarlane was the unanimous choice.
“This felt like a writer who was pitch perfect and just hit it on the nail with this book,” Smith said. “We were all really impressed by, bluntly, a genius. And I am sure we will see a lot more of Fiona McFarlane. She is already acclaimed, but this will take her into an even higher stratosphere.”
McFarlane, who studied in Cambridge and at the University of Texas at Austin, and now lives in Sydney, received the award at a ceremony in Swansea on Wednesday night.
This is the 11th year of the award, which has been won in the past by Max Porter, Joshua Ferris and Maggie Shipstead. This year’s judging panel also included authors Sarah Moss and Prajwal Parajuly, poet Kurt Heinzelman and the BBC’s head of audio drama, Alison Hindell.