An Australian author who went on an exchange trip to Iceland as a teenager because she had never seen snow has been nominated for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her debut novel about the country’s last execution.
Hannah Kent celebrated her 29th birthday on Monday with the news that her book Burial Rites had made the six-strong shortlist for the award, alongside heavyweight writers including Donna Tartt and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Helen Fraser, chair of the judges of this year’s Women’s Prize, revealed the shortlist at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery tonight.
She hailed the three debut novelists who made the shortlist adding Kent’s work was “great” and had used the historical documents “so brilliantly”.
Ms Kent went to Iceland for a year-long Rotary exchange in 2003 at the age of 17, and ended up in Sauðárkrókur, a fishing village so remote it was not even on her atlas. “It was a real culture shock,” she said.
It was there she was told the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was executed for her role in a brutal murder in 1829, although the facts surrounding her involvement are decidedly unclear.
The author said her homesickness led her to feel kinship with the woman who was sent to a remote farm to await her execution. “I felt a connection with her story that I couldn’t explain and I still can’t,” she said. “That led to a deeper curiosity and a lot of questions about who she was.”
While she would not write about the character again “it has been such a long time since I heard her story, and becoming obsessed by the biographical research, I will always carry Agnes Magnúsdóttir with me, in the way we carry anyone we grieve for”.
Her breakthrough came when she won a national competition for unpublished manuscripts and Burial Rites became the focus of a bidding war for its international rights.
Ms Kent said: “It’s such a huge honour to be shortlisted for this prize, I’m so thrilled. It is particularly special because many of the women authors I love and admire and have influenced me, such as Jill Dawson and Margaret Atwood, I came to through this prize.” She is currently in the early stages of working on a second book.
According to the chair of the judges, the presence of three debuts on the shortlist “says something about the talent coming up. These debut novels are so confident and accomplished.”
The others are The Undertaking by Audrey Magee, a former journalist, and Eimear McBride, who wrote A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing when she was 27 and spent a decade trying to get it published.
Among the more established authors competing are the previously shortlisted Tartt for The Goldfinch and Adichie won the prize in 1997 for Half of a Yellow Sun.
Jhumpa Lahiri rounds out the list with her second novel The Lowland, shortlisted for the Booker. None of the authors have written more than three.
“There are no 11-time novelists on the list. Perhaps with the exception of Donna Tartt, these are people near the start of their writing lives,” Ms Fraser said Tartt wrote her first novel The Secret History in 1992.
“These books rose above the others,” Ms Fraser said. “They had something extraordinary, exciting and compelling about them.”
She continued: “There’s very little domestic drama, and that clichéd idea of romantic fiction. There wasn’t much of that this year. These are big ambitious books that deal with war, grief and loss. They are not confined to the domestic arena.”
The £30,000 prize open to fiction written by women in English will be awarded at a ceremony on London’s South Bank in June.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah
The author, who grew up in Nigeria, published her first novel Purple Hibiscus in 2003, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Yet she is known the follow up Half of a Yellow Sun set during the Biafran war, which won the Orange Prize and has been adapted into a film.
Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
Kent, who was born in Adelaide, got the idea for her novel when on a year-long student exchange in Iceland. She is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings and is completing her PhD at Flinders University.
Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
Despite “years” of rejection the author won the Pulitzer Prize for her first short story collection Interpreter of Maladies and her second novel The Lowland was also nominated for the Booker. The bestselling writer is a British/American author with Indian heritage.
Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
The Irish writer was a journalist for 12 years for publications including The Times, The Irish Times and The Guardian. Fergal Keane called her “one of the most exciting new talents to arrive on the literary scene” following the publication of her debut novel The Undertaking.
Eimear McBride – A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
McBride, who grew up in Ireland before moving to the UK, wrote her debut novel aged 27 and spent a decade trying to get it published. After moving to Norwich in 2011 she met Galley Beggar Press which published the book last year. It won the inaugural Goldsmith’s Prize, and was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize
Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
Her debut novel The Secret History was a sensation after it was published in 1992. Yet she would not publish another novel until The Little Friend a decade later, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. The Goldfinch, published last year, took another 11 years.