Costa book awards: Susanna Clarke nominated for second novel after 16-year wait

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell author picked for Piranesi, alongside Denise Mina, Julian Barnes and the late Eavan Boland, in prizes for ‘enjoyable’ books

Sixteen years after she published her debut, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke has made the shortlist for the Costa book awards for her second novel, the long-awaited Piranesi.

The Costas recognise the “most enjoyable” books across five categories, with 708 books submitted this year. Piranesi, the fantastical story of a man who lives in a house in which an ocean is imprisoned, was described by the judges of the £5,000 Costa best novel award as “magnificently imagined”. Clarke, who was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome after publication of the bestselling fantasy Jonathan Strange, said she was “so pleased” to make the Costa lineup.

“It’s a book that I really didn’t know whether I could write or not. There were, I suppose, a lot of things against it, against the likelihood of it ever being written – after such a long illness, I really didn’t know whether I could do this,” she said. “And when I had written it, it seemed like such a strange and personal book I wasn’t quite sure what I’d written. So for it to be recognised is particularly special, particularly wonderful.”

In the best novel category, Piranesi is up against Denise Mina’s thriller The Less Dead, which judges called “a richly drawn, beautifully paced book … set in the guise of a thriller, but it is actually about humanity”. Also shortlisted are Peace Talks by Tim Finch, “a profound, delicate and witty book” about a diplomat sent to a hotel in the Tyrol, and Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch, in which a fisherman attracts the attention of an ancient mermaid, which the judges said “combines a seductive fable with the visceral realism of a Caribbean island”.

Among the authors in the first novel category is Michelle Gallen, for Big Girl, Small Town, a darkly comic novel following a young Northern Irish woman whose father disappeared during the Troubles. The judges called it “simply outstanding”.

Michelle Gallen.
‘It’s just been such a long, strange journey to get here’ ... Michelle Gallen. Photograph: Brideen Baxter and Deci Gallen/Simple Tapestry

Gallen, who was born in Tyrone and grew up during the Troubles, said her shortlisting “doesn’t feel real” because “it’s just been such a long, strange journey to get here”.

The author, who is autistic, fell ill with a form of encephalitis when she was 23, in 1998. “I went home to my parents in a wheelchair. At one stage, I didn’t know my second name. I had my mum feeding me. It was a very tough space to be and so getting back to writing wasn’t fast,” she said.

Gallen started writing a daily diary to remind herself of what she’d done each day, then progressed to short stories. She was working for the BBC in Belfast when she had the idea for Big Girl, Small Town. It took a long time for her to find a publisher, she said, because “we didn’t have Derry Girls, we didn’t have Milkman, we didn’t have anything other than the traditional bomb and bullets narratives”.

“I think it’s so lovely that a neurodiverse protagonist has been welcomed on to the bookshelves,” Gallen said. “To see a character who is not typically lovable and not neurotypical, who has not had a typical lifestyle, who is quite uncompromising – to see her be accepted and to see people spend time to get to know this person, it’s extraordinary.”

Gallen is up against three other debuts: The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain, which follows a widowed father as he raises his two small children; Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud, about an unconventional household in Trinidad; and All the Water in the World by Karen Raney, in which a family deals with a teenage daughter’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

Rachel Long, the poet behind My Darling from the Lions.
Rachel Long, author of My Darling from the Lions. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

The late Irish poet Eavan Boland is posthumously nominated for the poetry category for The Historians, alongside first-time poets Rachel Long and Martha Sprackland, for My Darling from the Lions and Citadel respectively; and this year’s Forward prize winner Caroline Bird for The Air Year.

Meg Rosoff is up for best children’s book with The Great Godden, a novel for teenagers about first love and sibling rivalry, alongside Wranglestone by Darren Charlton, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant and The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson.

And in the biography category, Lee Lawrence is nominated for The Louder I Will Sing, about how his mother Cherry Groce was wrongly shot by police during a raid on her home in 1985. Novelist Julian Barnes is in the running with The Man in the Red Coat, about a gynaecologist at the heart of Belle Époque Paris; palliative care specialist Dr Rachel Clarke is nominated for Dear Life; and Jeff Young is nominated for his ode to his childhood home, Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadow Play.

The category winners, who each receive £5,000, will be announced on 4 January. The overall winner of the £30,000 Costa book of the year will be revealed on 26 January.

2020 Costa book awards shortlists

First novel

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen (John Murray Publishers)
The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain (HQ)
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud (Faber)
All the Water in the World by Karen Raney (Two Roads)


Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Peace Talks by Tim Finch (Bloomsbury Publishing)
The Less Dead by Denise Mina (Harvill Secker)
The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story by Monique Roffey (Peepal Tree)


The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape)
Dear Life by Rachel Clarke (Little, Brown)
The Louder I Will Sing by Lee Lawrence (Sphere)
Ghost Town: A Liverpool Shadow Play by Jeff Young (Little Toller Books)


The Air Year by Caroline Bird (Carcanet)
The Historians by Eavan Boland (Carcanet)
My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long (Picador)
Citadel by Martha Sprackland (Pavilion Poetry)

Children’s books

Wranglestone by Darren Charlton (Little Tiger)
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant (Faber)
The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson (Usborne)
The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff (Bloomsbury Publishing)


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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