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Novel Studio 2019 Readings Event

This year has been fabulous for the Novel Studio. Alumna and crime writer Harriet Tyce created and sponsored the Novel Studio Scholarship for writers from a low-income household - the inaugural winner, Lola Okolosie will take up her place in September 2019 - and many alumni have not only been published but won prizes for their work.

by Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone

On top of alumni success, this year’s 2018/19 cohort of students has been incredibly dedicated, creating work that is diverse in genre but unified in quality. Their readings event on the 4th July in the beautiful Performance Space was the perfect place to see this hard work and talent on display.

Part of the Novel Studio syllabus requires the students to prepare for the readings event - not only honing their 4 minute extracts, but working with City on the design of the invites, taking charge of the guest list, preparing materials for the event and the anthology as well as ordering refreshments. By 7pm the Performance Space was packed full of friends, family and industry all eager to hear new talent. They were not disappointed.

After the initial thank-yous, we were taken back in time to the Whitechapel of 1976 as Laurence Kershook read from his novel, The Broygus. We listened as Samuel met Esther, a terminally ill Jewish woman, for the first time. When Samuel considers turning back from the meeting, a car crash persuades him the heavens have assigned him to Esther, but who is she to him? What change will their meeting bring to his life?

We left Whitechapel and travelled into present day Silicon Valley when Lara Williams read from her novel, Separation of Concerns. Lara gave us an overview of leafy Palo Alto, its have and have-nots, as her character Emma worried over the end of the summer holidays and the lack of expensive camps her boys had been on.

An image of leaf-blowers next to well-maintained jogging mothers in our mind, we heard from another Lara, Lara Haworth next. She introduced us to Grace who has disappeared to the windblown towns of Analucia, in her novel The Straits. From the cry of a seagull interrupting dreams of her father to the strained telephone call with her sister, the audience was left wondering why Grace had run away to Spain and what it might mean for the unfolding novel.

Simon Margrave took to the stage next, dropping us into the middle of something more-than-a-nightclub brawl in Nairobi in 2007, reading from his novel, This Place. Without giving away all the tensions of the work, Simon made the thrilling nature of his narrative - the corruption and violence - chillingly clear.

Moving to another novel with connections to Africa, this time Eritrea, Melanie Quacquarelli read an extract from her novel, This Is Now, next. In a moving piece about two women from different backgrounds supporting each other in their time of need, we heard from Ruta, an Eritrean refugee working as a cleaner in Goldsmiths College, London, wiping up the tears and mess of a middle class art student, Nina. How would this moment of connection shape their future?

We travelled to the city of Florence next as Labeja Kodua Okullu read from his novel, Three Weeks in Florence. Reading from a work whose narrator thinks in chorus, wasn’t an easy task, but Labeja transported us into the mind of his protagonist as he considered the influence of place on his identity. Loud in Akra, quiet in London, what might he be in Florence?

Anne Phipps read next, taking us back to Britain and into the heart of a religious community, from her novel Inedible Animals. We listened as Vee burned her wedding dress in the barbecue, wondering if the plastic mess from the cheap material would be the only mark she would leave on the community as her best friend’s death provokes a loss of faith and a need to investigate.

We then journeyed into the borderlands between Poland, Ukraine and Belarus as Marta Michalowska read from her novel, Sketching in Ashes. Describing the flowing waters of the river Bug, Marta’s main character forced us to consider the unsettling consequences of shifting borders.

From emotional to political turmoil, we were dragged right back to a near-future England poised for a general election next as Ed Hickey read from his novel, Purdah. It was hard not to laugh at as one of his main characters, an MP, fought with a stuffy, local councillor over the importance of roads and funding cuts. Her hard line politics a sharp reminder of how ambition and loyalty each play their parts in the decisions we think we are making for justice.

Claudia Titu read from her novel, Land of the Heart, next. We were taken to Maria’s balcony in a town in Romania where she was looking for a scarf given to her by her sister who is ill with cancer. Does losing the scarf have any relationship to her sister’s health? How will her close relationship with her husband be challenged over the course of the novel as more difficult circumstances come into play?

We then left Romania to go back to the future once more as Sonia Afzal read from her novel, Fault Lines. We listened to Raf waking up, her mind made up about leaving her husband. Alongside the technological developments, we heard real emotional issues that linger over long term relationships and make ongoing identity a constant development question, regardless of era.

From the end of a relationship to the possible beginning of a new one, we travelled to Greater Manchester with Kate Elliot as she read from her novel, Like Me. Recently divorced Jess had just driven miles with her two kids for a school reunion the following day. Her old friend is quick to tell her of an old acquaintance, Sam, who has moved back into his family home, just down the road. Even though Jess likes to think she hasn’t thought about Sam in years, she seems to know an awful lot about him...

Elizabeth Forsyth was the next to take to the stage, reading from her novel, Family Business, set in California. We were thrown into a very tense scene between husband and wife as the husband accuses the wife of stealing money from his business. An accusation the wife flatly denies. Though the words and physical expression were relatively mild, the anger, disappointment and frustration were raging through the scene.

It was from this tense atmosphere that Ursula Hirschkorn took to the stage to read from her science-fiction thriller, The Age of Independence. Ursula gave us the opening scene in which a young boy is arrested for the murder of his mother. It was chilling to hear him reflect on the ease and correctness of taking his mother’s life. Would this murder set a precedent for similar crimes? What would Detective Arden Cauldwell make of all this and where would the novel go next?

It was a rather terrifying end to the readings but one which reminded everyone in the audience of what a fantastic job each student and author had done to make us want to hear the rest of their story. Clear, moving, erudite, funny, this year’s Novel Studio Readings were a real delight with something for everyone. The buzz during the aftermath of the readings, with agents chatting away to students, was testament to their brilliance. With such promise on display, we know we’ll be hearing from these writers again in the near future and wish them every success in their future writing careers.

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