A novel that explores ‘abandoned places’ and ‘nature taking its place again’ has won a £10,000 literary prize, with judges saying it will ‘make you look up, look around and see the world and humanity’s place in it in an entirely new way”. .
Scottish author and journalist Cal Flyn has been named the Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Trust Young Writer of the Year 2021 winner for his novel Islands of Abandonment.
It is the 35-year-old’s second novel and explores abandoned places: ghost towns and exclusion zones, no man’s land and fortress islands – and what happens when nature takes its place again.
The book has already been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Wainwright Conservation Award.
Judge Claire Lowdon said the book was a “counterintuitive redemption story, a dazzling blend of ecology, natural history, literature and aesthetics. All the writers here should be applauded for tackling difficult subjects head-on.”
She added: ‘We are facing a terrifying environmental crisis of our own making and it is tempting to put our heads down and try to forget about it. Flyn’s writing will have you looking up, looking around, and seeing the world and humanity’s place in it in an entirely new way.
Judge Tahmima Anam said: “We all fell in love with this book: the originality of thought, the intellectual rigor, the love for all that is gone and yet not entirely lost, and of course the sheer magic of prose.
“Cal Flyn finds sublime beauty in the most unlikely places, and in doing so, gives us all reason to hope that our planet can still be saved. You couldn’t ask for a better reason to read.
Flyn was chosen from a shortlist of five young authors which also included Megan Nolan (Acts of Desperation), Anna Beecher (Here Comes the Miracle), Rachel Long (My Darling from the Lions) and Caleb Azumah Nelson (Open Water).
She will receive the £10,000 prize along with a 10-week bespoke residency by the University of Warwick and a two-year membership at the London Library.
Shortlisted writers will receive a £1,000 prize and a one-year subscription to the London Library.
Previous winners of the award are Zadie Smith, Simon Armitage, Max Porter and Sally Rooney.
The prize was launched in 1991 and each year is awarded to a writer between the ages of 18 and 35 for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry first published in the UK or Ireland.
Rooney, 31, won the award in 2017 for his novel Conversations with Friends, which has since been adapted into a BBC TV series due to air later this year.
Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times, said: “It is one thing to have written such an original and captivating book as Islands of Abandonment. It’s a whole other thing to be such a superb stylist and writer as Cal Flyn has shown herself in this book.
“Over the years, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award has made a habit of celebrating superb nature writers – Robert Macfarlane, William Fiennes, Adam Weymouth – and Flyn with this more than comparable superb book to those predecessors. Beware of her; she’s already a superb writer, and she has the potential to be so much more.
This year the prize has partnered with the Charlotte Aitken Trust, which, in her daughter’s memory, aims to continue the work of literary agent Gillon Aitken to foster literary talent and advance public education in the field of literature.
The price took a break between 2009 and 2015.