The 2011 Prize

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph (Fourth Estate)

SaraswatiParkpbkAnjali Joseph was named on Thursday 23 June as the winner of the £10,000 Desmond Elliott Prize 2011 for Saraswati Park, published by Fourth Estate.

The Prize is awarded annually to the best first novel and Anjali Joseph’s portrayal of modern-day India was selected for its enchanting narrative and assured style.

Edward Stourton, Chair of Judges, comments, “We were united in our   admiration for Saraswati Park, which we found utterly absorbing and faultlessly written. The characters are beautifully rendered, and their lives, with their ambitions and regrets, stay with you long after you have closed the last page. Anjali Joseph’s skills as a novelist are humbling.” Described by The Times as “a latter-day Mrs Gaskell”, Anjali Joseph quickly attracted the attention of the literary world: The Observer described Saraswati Park as “An elegantly realised portrait of unrequited love, frustrated aspirations and the unspoken compromises of marriage and family” and The Literary Review praised this “beautiful novel that personifies the new India from the inside out’. The Daily Telegraph selected Anjali Joseph as one of its “Top 20 Novelists under 40” alongside other outstanding emerging writers such as Zadie Smith and Adam Foulds.

Anjali Joseph’s career has encompassed teaching and office temping, as well as spells as a trainee accountant and in journalism. After reading English at Trinity College, Cambridge, she went on to teach at the Sorbonne and has since written for The Times of India in Bombay and worked as Commissioning Editor for ELLE (India). She is now concentrating on her second novel, whose action will take place across three cities – Paris, London and Bombay. Saraswati Park was joined on the 2011 shortlist by Boxer, Beetle (Ned Beauman) and Pigeon English (Stephen Kelman).

The Desmond Elliott Prize, specifically for first novels, is now in its fourth year. Here the judges are looking for a novel of depth and breadth with a compelling narrative. The work should be vividly written and confidently executed and should contain original and arresting characters. Entries from all fiction genres are considered.

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Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph (Fourth Estate)

Mohan is a contemplative man who has spent his life observing people from his seat as a letter-writer outside Bombay’s main post office, but his lack of engagement is creating a rift between him and his wife Lakshmi. At this delicate moment they are joined at their home in Saraswati Park by their nephew Ashish, a diffident, sexually uncertain 19-year-old who has to repeat his final year of college.

As the novel unfolds, the lives of the three characters are thrown into relief by the comical frustrations of family life. When Lakshmi loses her only brother, she leaves Bombay for a relative’s home to mourn not only the death of a sibling but also the vital force of her marriage. Ashish, meanwhile, embarks upon an affair with a much richer boy in his college and, later, succumbs to the overtures of his private tutor. As Mohan scribbles away in the margins of the sort of books he secretly hopes to produce one day, he worries about whether his wife will return, what will become of Ashish and if he himself will ever find his own voice and write from the margins about the centre of which he will never be a part.

Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay in 1978. Following her degree in English from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2008 she gained, with distinction, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She lives in Norwich and is now writing her second novel.

A Note From The Author

Where did it all go right? When I think of the process of writing Saraswati Park, there seem to have been many moments of good luck: being able to spend a year in which I began to write the novel, and trying out different ways I might want to write; finding an agent, Peter Straus, who loved the book for what I felt were the right reasons, and finding an editor, Mark Richards, who also loved it, and didn’t want many changes.

There were many difficult times too; most writers of a first novel have to deal with repeated rejection. I had an illogical, subterranean fear whenever someone saw the novel that they might turn to me and say with venom, ‘But you just made this up, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Admit it. It’s not true, is it?’ Nevertheless, a quiet book, much of which is about characters who stare out of windows, and don’t tell the people they are closest to what they are thinking, has a very specific journey to make in the world.

‘You were lucky to get this book published,’ said a friend, and he was right. I was luckier still that three people I’d never met and had no connection with found something in the book that made them feel close to it. There were two great gifts for me in winning the prize. Of course, the money, which will enable me to continue writing full time, is an enormous privilege. But it means as much, in a more enduring way, to have had the judges put their faith in the novel and its characters, people who became quite real to me but whom I had, of course, made up.

From the longlisting to the award ceremony – which London traffic nearly, it seemed, would make me miss – there was also a sense of intrigue and fun about the prize that seemed to derive from its generous, eccentric donor. From the stories about him and the single photo of him on the web site, shirt open at the neck, expression mischievous, it was obvious both that he’d been alive to the odd ways in which a few well-timed moments of luck alter a life, and that flair was important to him. For all these reasons, I’m very proud to have won the Desmond Elliott Prize.