Dylan Thomas Prize 3

5. ‘The Doll Princess’ by Tom Benn

This novel won me over. I thought I was going to hate it on the basis of the first few pages and it took some time to adjust both to the Mancunian dialect the characters speak and the bleak moral view of the underworld which they inhabit. But you become accustomed to the rough poetry within the dialect  and the dark morality as you would learning a new language.

It’s certainly uncomfortable: violent, drug-fuelled, full of sex and murder and characters who are casually racist and misogynist. Most are dislikeable; a few, including the narrator Bane, display some principles and redeeming features which give us a way of holding on in an otherwise deeply unpleasant world.

There’s a crime to be solved, or rather a wrong to be righted, because this isn’t a detective novel. There’s a rough sort of justice but much more injustice: the guilty people aren’t all punished and the (relatively) good people aren’t all rewarded.

But this book is not just eye-opening as documentary, it’s also satisfying as fiction.

Benn clearly loves language and has a terrific turn of phrase. A dance floor is ‘heaving like a sea of cockroaches.’ In Manchester’s Village, ‘the mucky canal blistered in the sun.’  And in a murder scene, ‘the impact from bullet holes in the wall had frosted the blood with plaster powder.’

Here’s a longer example:

Back to the car – blood soaked upholstery in the mirror. Eyes higher: a taxi indicating at the top of the lane. I wound the window down. It was muggy inside and out.

I knifed the ignition. Twist. The dash clock lit up. Not even 2pm. Twist. Neneh Cherry cried through the radio. Twist. The engine cried with her.

I love the way this conveys the urgency of the situation by dropping verbs and pronouns. ‘Knifing’ carries so many meanings. Neneh Cherry ‘crying’ and the engine ‘crying’ – it’s beautifully done as is the whole novel. Very impressive.


6. ‘Grow Up’ by Ben Brooks

It’s hard to believe that Ben Brooks is just twenty. His way with words is extremely impressive:

I am emotionally paraplegic and the entire school is playing football.

There is music as grateful as school hymns ringing off the disco ball.

Morning is making early promises from the edge of the world and the sky directly over our heads is the colour of blue slush puppy.

But I’m not sure it’s used for any particular purpose. I’m not convinced that the story gets us anywhere. There’s a hint that the characters are about to grow up, but other than that, there’s no real progress. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable, well-written ride that will make you smile and occasionally laugh out loud.


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