“Spectacular talent” Maddie Mortimer has won the Desmond Elliott prize for her “incredibly inventive” novel Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies.
Mortimer was announced as the winner of the prize, which is given for a debut novel published in the UK and Ireland, at a ceremony in London this evening.
Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies was inspired by Mortimer’s mother, who died of cancer in 2010, and focuses on the character of Lia and the shapeshifting cancer inside her body. Moving between Lia’s past and present, the book is a look at memory, mother-daughter relationships, and coming to terms with death.
Calling the novel “sprawling and ambitious”, the Guardian review explains that Lia “shares the spotlight with ‘I, itch of ink, think of thing’, an impish, verbose and mysterious narrator that appears to be neither human nor nonhuman. Confined to its own short chapters early on, its signature bold type begins to infiltrate the standard third-person narration.”
Mortimer called the novel “an elegy to my mum and to our relationship”.
“I wrote it as a way of spending time with her, working through grief and the intense period of experiencing someone die,” she added. “So having the book out in the world as a piece of us and our relationship is one thing. Having it win the Desmond Elliott prize is extraordinary and deeply moving. I wish she was here to see it.”
Author Derek Owusu, who won the prize in 2020 for That Reminds Me, chaired the panel of judges this year. He was joined by Channel 4 News correspondent Symeon Brown and Lyndsey Fineran, programme manager for the Cheltenham literature festival. The judges, said Owusu, went “back and forth for days after the winner was due”, but ultimately decided on Mortimer’s book feeling “confident that we would be assisting with, and bearing witness to, the launching of a new and spectacular talent”.
Owusu said that Mortimer had “penetrated the body and spirit of literature, taking an experience, one familiar to so many of us, and making it unique”.
“This is a book full of poetry and wonder, interior and exterior examination, sadness, though without the pessimism that sometimes accompanies it, love, and through all things, hope,” Owusu continued. “You’ll re-read passages like pulling a song back to its start, wanting to evoke and experience those chills, or be enlightened again and again.”
Fineran said the novel was a “standout read” in a “very strong list”. Brown added: “It’s an incredibly inventive and, at times, genius novel, seamlessly blending competing values from science and religion to bluntness and subtlety.”
Mortimer, who as well as being a writer has had short films screened at festivals around the world, wins £10,000, alongside a year of support from the National Centre for Writing, which runs the prize.
The other books on the shortlist were Iron Annie by Luke Cassidy, about two women thrown together on a wild road trip through Britain, and Tice Cin’s Keeping the House, following three generations of women as they navigate the complex and precarious heroin trade in north London.
Maps of Our Spectacular Bodies by Maddie Mortimer. Photograph: PR
The 2021 Desmond Elliott prize was awarded to AK Blakemore for The Manningtree Witches, a historical novel about Essex witch trials in the 17th century. Previous winners include Lisa McInerney, Preti Taneja and Francis Spufford.