Poignant, exuberant, gripping: Alan Hollinghurst on the 2019 Desmond Elliott shortlist

I’d never judged a prize before, but felt, as I worked cautiously on my seventh novel, that judging a first-novel prize might give me a shot in the arm. The Desmond Elliott prize — £10,000 for the best first novel of the year — must be an exciting one to win. It’s also a very nice one to judge. You only have to read a longlist of 10 — there’s none of the novel-a-day pressure of the Man Booker — and while you know in advance that the standard will be high, you’re unlikely to know anything about the authors themselves. I decided to read without looking at blurbs, author biographies or, particularly, reviews: it was a real chance to encounter 10 books and their writers without preconceptions.

Some of them, it turns out, have already made a splash, some have gone unfairly unnoticed, but among them, no doubt, will be big names of the future. (Lisa McInerney and Eimear McBride are among earlier winners of the prize.)

Last week the three judges — Robbie Millen, literary editor of The Times, Meryl Halls, chief executive of the Booksellers’ Association, and myself — arrived at a shortlist of three novels strikingly different in subject and treatment.

Anna Mackmin, author and theatre director
 ‘Exuberant originality’ … Anna Mackmin. Photograph: Joanna Millington/Propolis Books

Claire Adam’s Golden Child (Faber) is set in Trinidad — a gripping study of a family cracking under the pride of a misguided father who fatally favours a clever son over his supposedly “retarded” twin.

Michael Donkor’s Hold (Fourth Estate) is set largely in south London, but its framing sections take place in Ghana, and its themes of longing and displacement are explored, with great poignancy and humour, entirely from the point of view of Ghanaian women.

And Anna Mackmin’s Devoured (Propolis) takes place in a commune in Norfolk in 1973, and is narrated with exuberant originality by the 12-year-old daughter of self-absorbed hippies.

Impossible, really, to guess which of the three will claim the cheque on June 19. Winning such a prize is a great thing, but it’s just as clear to me that not winning is not losing.

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