My Name is Leon wins Irish Novel of the Year Award

Kit de Waal, Brendan Kennelly and Vona Groarke honoured at Listowel Writers’ Week

Kit de Waal: “set out to create an individual and genuine voice in My Name Is Leon and has succeeded absolutely”. Photograph: Justine Stoddart

Kit de Waal: “set out to create an individual and genuine voice in My Name Is Leon and has succeeded absolutely”. Photograph: Justine Stoddart

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Debut novelist Kit  de Waal has won the €15,000 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2017 with My Name is Leon. It was presented last night at an awards ceremony held to mark the opening by US author Richard Ford of the 46th annual Listowel Writers’ Week.

The novel, about a young boy caught up in gang culture and the care system, was chosen by fellow authors AL Kennedy and Neel Mukherjee from a shortlist that included Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones (winne rof the Goldsmiths Prize and BGE Irish Book of the Year), Neil Hegarty’s Inch Levels, The Wonder by Emma Donoghue and Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing on Earth. The judges said: “This is a heartfelt, far-sighted and humane book, shot through with understated grief, necessary humour and a masterly point of view, rendering detail with nuance and accuracy. It is filled with a passionate rage on behalf of the weak and the broken.”

De Waal, who is 56, was born in Birmingham but has roots in Wexford and the West Indies. She is also shortlisted for the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize, won last year by Lisa McInerney. The winner is announced on June 21st. The audiobook version of My Name is Leon is voiced by Lenny Henry, who has also optioned it for a television adaptation. De Waal used some of her advance from her publisher Penguin to set up the Kit de Waal Creative Writing Fellowship at Birkbeck College in London to help improve working-class representation in the arts.

The John B Keane Lifetime Achievement Award, in association with Mercier Press, was presented in person to poet Brendan Kennelly, who received one of the loudest applause of the evening, in recognition of his outstanding contribution not only to literature but to Writers’ Week. He was one of the founding members in 1970.

The €5,000 Pigott Poetry Prize was awarded to Vona Groarke for her Selected Poems. The adjudicators were Deryn Rees Jones and Lavinia Greenlaw. The two other shortlisted collections were Parvit of Agelast by Maighread Medbh and The Seasons of Cullen Church by Bernard O’Donoghue.

The festival continues until Sunday, June 4th and will play host to Alan Cumming, Helen Lederer, Richard Ford, Sinead Crowley, Lisa McInerney, Jess Kidd, Graham Norton, Liz Nugent, Arja Kajermo, Lisa Harding and Alan McMonagle amon gothers. It will also feature 12 creative writing workshops and the National Children’s Festival featuring Nick Sharatt, Holly Webb, Cathy Cassidy and Sarah Webb. writersweek.ie

AL Kennedy and Neel Mukherjee comment on the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist

My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal
Kit De Waal has set out to create an individual and genuine voice in My Name Is Leon and has succeeded absolutely. This is a novel full of grounded truth. The narrative is emotional without being sentimental and often genuinely moving. Through young Leon’s eyes we see modern Ireland and some of her burning issues – the wounds and frailties of adulthood and the realities of a care system under austerity’s pressures. This is a heartfelt, far-sighted and humane book, shot through with understated grief, necessary humour and a masterly point of view, rendering detail with nuance and accuracy. It is filled with a passionate rage on behalf of the weak and the broken.

Nothing On Earth by Conor O’Callaghan
Nothing on Earth is a chilling and visceral tale of financial and actual mysteries. In its startling opening, a young girl appears on a stranger’s doorstep, wild and with words marked on her skin. For the man who receives her she is a puzzle, a temptation and a duty of his care. Through her we learn of a failed family, adrift in a failed housing development, each member slowly disappearing as the summer’s heat burns down. In a beautiful metaphor for the withering of capitalism’s dreams, we watch as hope and promises turn to degradation and strangeness. Slowly all necessities – light, heat, water, companionship, presence – are withdrawn, all rendered in a prose filled with the author’s poetic skill. An admirable first novel.

Inch Levels by Neil Hegarty
Hegarty’s novel revolves – achingly, obsessively, guiltily – around a young girl’s senseless murder. The death of this innocent is shockingly invoked and haunts a landscape and a handful of lives, years after the event. A man lies in his hospital bed, besieged by his own death and visited by his family and the pasts they bring with them. The tensions of blood relations, the wonders of our parents’ lives before us and the ever-widening depths of bereavement are all explored here with a hypnotic vividness. From natural details to perfectly rendered thought and feeling, this is a triumphant book.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
A generous, beautifully written and impeccably researched historical novel on anorexia and superstition set after the Great Famine, The Wonder resonates with the always-present urgency of the great matter of faith versus reason. Donoghue’s abiding theme across her oeuvre, the confinement of children, finds original expression here, and the world of rural Ireland in the 1850s is brought thrillingly to life in language that doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” said Auden of Yeats. The tolling of the Angelus bell on All Souls’ Day in 2008 initiates something similar in Marcus Conway as he recalls his life in a perfectly-cadenced stream of a single sentence that manages to distil the very essence of contemporary life and its discontents. Sometimes this book seems to be a song, at other times a prose poem, and at all times a unique achievement.

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