Writing your first novel is quite an achievement in itself but winning a major new literary prize with your debut work is in another league altogether.
For Amy Arnold, winner last year of the inaugural Northern Book Prize set up by Sheffield-based independent publisher And Other Stories, the experience has been both incredibly exciting and slightly daunting. “I have been so pleased with how the book has been received but the whole thing has been a bit overwhelming,” she says. “It’s been a massive learning curve.” Her novel Slip of a Fish is an ambitious and totally original piece of literary fiction. It tells a story of motherhood, loss and love through the troubled, repetitive and at times troubling, inner thoughts of a young woman, Ash, who appears to be emotionally removed from her own life possibly due to a past trauma which is never fully explained.
The book took nearly four years to write as Arnold, a neuroscientist by training, was working towards a PhD at the time. “I wanted to get back in touch with my creative side and started to write something that would challenge me. It was a very personal project – I had no intention at all of publishing it.”
It is a totally absorbing read and was praised by the competition judges for ‘prose that skitters, sinks, hooks, pulls, resists, and flips high in gorgeous blinding flashes’. The writing displays an imaginative lyricism that reflects both the protagonist’s and the author’s passion for words. “I love language,” says Arnold. “I only have GCSE English and that almost kind of frees you up – there are no expectations.” Ash is a collector of words, mother to young daughter Charlie and wife to supportive, equally eccentric husband Abbott. They live a fairly simple, uneventful life – and then something shifts. At the centre of the novel is an oblique but disturbing act of transgression that tests the reader’s empathy and understanding. “I wanted to see if it was possible to empathise with somebody who has done something so awful,” says Arnold. “Also, I wanted to try and write something that really reflected the way we think and do things. That was partly because of my training in psychology – we do go over and over things in our minds, refreshing and replaying. So I wondered if it was possible to hold a story together while a character is plucking at ideas over and over again.” She recognises that the end result may be a challenge for the reader (“I know it’s not the kind of book that will appeal to everybody”) and admits that it also tested her as a writer. “It was difficult to keep the narrative on track sometimes,” she says. “But I really wanted to show the way a distressed mind works.”
Once the novel was finished Arnold’s husband persuaded her to submit the manuscript to the competition. “And then I forgot about it. I was busy writing something else by the time I heard I had won. I was completely shocked – in a good way.” Now she is well on the way with her second book, a novella. “I am interested in pushing at a few boundaries,” she says. “I want to continue to explore the potential of what we can do with language and words. You can’t ever get bored of that.”
Slip of a Fish by Amy Arnold
And Other Stories, £10
Yvette Huddleston 4/5
Amy Arnold’s first novel, winner of the 2018 Northern Book Prize established by indie publisher And Other Stories, is an incredibly impressive literary debut.
Dazzling in its originality and courageous in its form and content, the writing is experimental in the sense that it tests the reader’s expectations and preconceptions, patience, even. But the rewards are many.
The protagonist, Ash, lives with her beloved seven-year-old daughter Charlie and husband Abbott. She is a young woman who appears to find it difficult to cope with the ordinary demands of everyday life, preferring instead to climb trees, walk in the hills and, especially, swim in a nearby lake. She loves words, collecting them with a zeal and attention to detail that verges on the obsessive.
Arnold deftly, and joyfully, plays with language using repetition and circularity to convincingly represent the inner workings of Ash’s troubled mind. Much is left deliberately ambiguous – what exactly happened with serene yoga teacher Kate? Why does friendly neighbour Joan stop calling round? – but the reader is presented with hints at traumatic events in Ash’s past which eventually, and shockingly, impinge on the present. The competition judges assert that ‘Slip of a Fish heralds the arrival of a stunning new voice in English fiction.’ I couldn’t agree more.