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Jessica Andrews: “Lots of young northern working-class women have said, ‘That’s like my life'”

A debut novel exploring the “poetry and power” of the female experience has won a literary award that rewards the best books about the north of England.

Saltwater by Jessica Andrews was named the winner of the £10,000 Portico Prize in Manchester on Thursday.

Andrews’ semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a young woman who moves from Sunderland to London and then Ireland, just as the author did.

The judges called it a “powerful, provocative and poignant tale”.

Lynne Allan, chair of The Portico Library, said: “It is a tender tribute to women across generations and an important exploration of women’s lives today.”

Other fans include Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke, who called it one of the best books she had read “in years” in the summer.

‘Quite close to my life’

Saltwater is made up of 300 brief chapters that the 28-year-old author deliberately jumbled up by printing out a manuscript and rearranging it on her neighbour’s kitchen floor.

The effect is meant to mimic how our experiences exist “all at once within the psyche”, she has said.

The main character, Lucy, goes to London for university, but finds herself adrift when she is away from home, before going to take stock of her life at her grandfather’s house in Donegal.

“This book is quite close to my life,” Andrews said at an appearance in Manchester on Wednesday, attended by BBC News. “It’s fiction but it’s very much rooted in my own experiences.

“I felt like I had to write it because I had this very intense feeling about the women I saw around me – like my mum and my female friends – and the way that their lives had been affected by the structures that were outside their control.

“I wanted to give space to that experience, and show that those experiences have all of this poetry and power in them.”

‘Spirit of the north’

She said she had to battle the feeling that she was writing about “trivial” subjects. “Actually what I’ve learned since publishing this novel is that lots of young northern working-class women have approached me and said, ‘That’s like my life,'” she said.

The Portico Prize, often billed as the “Booker Prize of the north”, rewards the book that “best evokes the spirit of the north of England”. It was established in 1985 as a biennial award, but this marks its return from a five-year break.

Simon Savidge, chair of the judges, said: “Saltwater shows the ‘spirit of the north’ is diverse and multifaceted. The north is not just around us, or a particular location to visit – but a place within us.”

Andrews also co-runs an online literary magazine called the Grapevine, which gives a platform to under-represented writers and artists.

The other shortlisted novels were:

  • Ironopolis by Glen James Brown – a debut novel with six interlinking narratives spanning 70 years and three generations on a “huge, weird” housing estate near Middlesbrough. It gets weirder when we meet an immortal witch named Peg Powler, who likes to drown children in the River Tees.
  • The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness by Graham Caveney – a memoir that’s partly about discovering films and literature and punk as a teenager in Accrington, Lancashire, but also about the abuse he suffered from his headmaster. Caveney says he wanted to write a “dark satire”, rather than simply a bleak abuse memoir.
  • Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers – a “biography of a place”, exploring the landscape of the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, where Myers lives with fellow nominee and wife Adelle Stripe. It was inspired by the devastating floods of Christmas 2015 and includes an account of the author attempting to rescue pensioners trapped in sheltered housing.
  • The Mating Habits of Stags by Ray Robinson – a modern gothic tale of geriatric love and revenge, this follows Jake, a widower in his 70s who is on the run in North Yorkshire after a violent crime. It was inspired by the true story of Barry Prudom, who spent 18 days on the run in 1982 after killing three people.
  • Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe – a fictionalised account of the life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who was best known for Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Dunbar shook up theatre and film in the 1980s but died at the age of 29 in 1990. A stage adaptation of Stripe’s book toured pubs and community venues in 2019.

The judges were actress Holliday Grainger, writer Zahid Hussain, poet Kate Fox and blogger Savidge.

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