Novelist and screenwriter Tom Benn has been named winner of the 2022 Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award for Oxblood, a novel that judge Oyinkan Braithwaite called a ‘bountiful, fearless work of literary art’, daringly exploring masculine violence and fractured female agency through the domestic lives of three generations of working-class women in 1980s Manchester.
Oxblood is a landmark novel shifting the perspective on male violence towards the female experience of grief, love and resilience.
Set in a council house haunted by memories of dead family members, Benn’s unflinching storytelling unearths the forgotten working class voices left in the footnotes of Manchester’s industrial history, shrouded by criminal secrecy and steeped in a powerful emotional darkness which left this year’s judges’ ‘bowled over’ and certain that Tom Benn’s talent will only continue to ‘grow and grow’.
For over 30 years, the UK’s most influential prize for young writers has been a definitive indicator of rising literary talent in Britain and Ireland, and Tom Benn joins an illustrious list of previous winners, including last year’s winner Cal Flyn, as well as Zadie Smith, Simon Armitage, Max Porter, Sally Rooney and Robert Macfarlane.
Johanna Thomas-Corr said:
‘Tom Benn is one of publishing’s best kept secrets. His story about the struggles of three generations of women in a Manchester crime clan has been rendered with such care and specificity that it feels wholly original. The result is a rich, dark, atmospheric family saga that contains so much buried love and anger and grief and sexual jealousy and bitter disappointment. In fact, it’s one of the best contemporary novels about disappointment that I have ever read. Yet somehow I emerged from it exhilarated! I’m thrilled that we are rewarding a young writer who has been working below the radar for a while and is now finally getting the attention he deserves.‘
Andrew Holgate said:
‘What a voice Tom Benn has got, what a feel for character and place, and what an uncompromising approach he has to his subject and material. He’s gritty but totally empathetic, and inhabits his milieu of 1980s Manchester with total conviction and no attempt to soften the voices of his characters We were bowled over as a judging panel by Oxblood, and feel confident too that Tom is a talent who will grow and grow.‘
Stig Abell said:
‘One good thing about judging a prize like this is that you approach a book without context or preconception and get to just plunge in. And Oxblood is a book to get lost headlong in. Tom Benn manages to be heart-felt and attentive and generous, without ever resorting to being sentimental. In fact this is a book of anti-sentimental greatness, wonderfully written, deft and pungent and sensuous. It is brave too, telling a tale without fear of ugliness, without seeking to smooth over the bumps of lived life at all. It is honest and truthful, but also a great feat of fiction. And he writes amazing female characters as well. It felt right to give him the prize not just as a reward for this massive achievement, but as a nod towards the novels he’s going to write in the future, which we have a feeling will be great.‘
Mona Arshi said:
‘Oxblood is one of those rare books where place and time are conjured so effortlessly, the caste of characters are drawn with so much ease and grace… Tom Benn is a seriously gifted writer and I’m keen to read whatever he does next.‘
Oyinkan Braithwaite said:
‘Oxblood is a propulsive, bountiful, fearless work of literary art. The female characters at the heart of Benn’s tale are single-minded, dogged and so completely convinced of themselves and their actions, that the reader is persuaded to be stirred by them and to remember them. It is clear that this is only the beginning for Tom Benn. His work is a vehicle for that rare unflinching look at our rawness, our brutality and our vulnerability.‘
Francis Spufford said:
‘It was a close call, because we were having to decide between four wonderful and wildly different books – but in the end, to me, it was Tom Benn who was doing the boldest and richest thing, using an unflinching sympathy and a fascinatingly mutated version of the crime writer’s tool-kit to carry the reader into the intimate depths of a household of violence. It’s a disconcerting book, with its insistence that a family’s heart of darkness is still despite it all a heart, and I wouldn’t call it reassuring, yet it shows us that there are few places literature can’t take us, if the writer is brave enough, and gifted enough.‘
Oxblood, Benn’s fourth novel, which was also longlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize 2022, is set in the heart of Manchester’s working-class community in the 1980s, during a period of rising unemployment and declining industry. With a rich atmosphere and vividly drawn characters, Benn spotlights the culture and legacy of patriarchal brutality as it shadows and shapes the lives of three women left behind.
Tom Benn’s first novel, The Doll Princess, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Portico Prize, and longlisted for the CWA’s John Creasey Dagger. Benn’s creative non-fiction has appeared in the Paris Review and he won the BFI’s iWrite scheme for emerging screenwriters. His first film Real Gods Require Blood premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Best Short Film at the BFI London Film Festival. Born in Stockport in 1987, he now teaches on the UEACrime Fiction Creative Writing MA and lives in Norwich. The announcement was made in a live event at Skylight Peckham by the new The Sunday Times’ Literary Editor Johanna Thomas-Corr, alongside 2022 Chair of Judges Andrew Holgate, as well as fellow judges Francis Spufford, Mona Arshi, Stig Abell, Oyinkan Braithwaite, and Chair of the Charlotte Aitken Trust, Sebastian Faulks.
The judges chose Tom Benn from a compelling shortlist of four authors, each producing innovative, forward-thinking narratives that pushed the boundaries of language and form, with Johanna Thomas-Corr commenting that each shortlisted writer had ‘set themselves free of publishing conventions’. In Larger than an Orange, Lucy Burns draws together an intimate memoir exploring the personal and public experience of abortion, in Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies, Maddie Mortimer poetically examines disease and mortality, and Katherine Rundell interrogates John Donne’s meditations on corporeal existence in the animated biography of his work, Super-Infinite (the only non-fiction title on the list).
For the second year running the Charlotte Aitken Trust acts as the title sponsor of the prize. The winner package includes a £10,000 prize for the winner and £1,000 for each shortlisted author. The 2022 winner will also receive 2 years’ membership to The London Library, while the remaining four shortlistees will all receive a year’s membership.
Administered by the Society of Authors, the Young Writer of the Year Award works with a growing network of partners, including retail partner Waterstones and our overseas partner the British Council, to provide a critical support system to the very best talent at work right now.
Sebastian Faulks said:
‘The Charlotte Aitken Trust would like to thank the judges of this year’s award for producing such an outstanding shortlist. It is a showcase for the vitality and range of talent in a younger generation. Tom Benn’s novel Oxblood is a worthy winner, though the prize could have gone to any of the shortlist — which must have made the judges’ task especially hard. We warmly congratulate all four authors and look forward to watching their careers blossom.‘
Bea Carvalho, Head of Fiction at Waterstones, said:
‘We are thrilled that Tom Benn has won this year’s Sunday Times Charlotte Aitken Young Writer of the Year Award. Oxblood is fiction at its most urgent and affecting, and readers will be hugely grateful to discover it as a result of this well-deserved accolade. The award carries terrific prestige and Waterstones are proud to partner with the Sunday Times to reach as many new readers as possible.‘
Rachel Stevens, at British Council said:
‘Many congratulations to Tom. Oxblood is a haunting and highly skilful novel and I’m delighted to see this well-deserved recognition of his work. At the British Council we look forward to working with him, and all of the writers shortlisted for this Award to reach new readers and make connections around the world.‘