Winners and runners up who were able to attend Marlborough LitFest 2023 launch party on Friday September 29 were presented with their prizes by Sir Simon Russell Beale, Patron of Marlborough LitFest. The winners and runners up in each age category are as follows : 13-15s – Guinevere Wise/ Theodora Bradley, 16-19s – Hannah Corcoran/ Louis Kruger, 20+ – Clotilde Chinnici/ Christina Swingler. The winners each received £300; runners-up each received £100.
Marlborough LitFest Love Books competition invites participants to explain their choice of a favourite book, poem or play in a written response of up to 750 words. The emphasis needs to be on what entrants love about their chosen read and why they think others should try it. The competition also highlights one of LitFest’s aims – namely to celebrate the power of reading to shift perceptions and to open up opportunities. This year attracted 160 entries – the largest number since the competition first started 4 years ago.
Genevieve Clarke, Marlborough LitFest Chair, said: “We were delighted to have a healthy crop of 70 entries for our youngest category and a record 63 entries for the adult category. Once again there was a wide range of reading choices in this year’s entries from young adult titles popular on BookTok to well-loved classics and, of course, Harry Potter. At a time when enjoyment and frequency of reading among children and young people in particular has declined it’s encouraging to see this enthusiasm for reading for pleasure.
LitFest is again very grateful to our judges: Judy Carver (daughter of William Golding), writer and CEO of William Golding Ltd, Jan Williamson (ex-Chair of Marlborough LitFest) and Nicola Presley, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Bath Spa University and also thanks to the anonymous donors who support our prizes.”
Please see below for the winning entries in each age category. To read the runners up entries, click here.
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
By Guinevere Wise
In a world full of unrelenting earnestness, thank God for Bridget Jones! She is the reliably entertaining friend who enlivens any evening, who says what she thinks, whatever the consequences, and is able to shake off any embarrassing episode as just another amusing night out.
Bridget, as realised by Helen Fielding, is the ultimate Guilty Feminist: she wants to be a career woman and have an independent life, but she just cannot stop worrying about how much she weighs and whether the handsome man at the party has noticed her. The diary format provides instant access to her inner life, with all the contradictions common to a thirtysomething woman: she has needs but does not want to seem needy, she has fun but wants to be taken seriously, she wants to say what she thinks but does not want to give herself away. She has a distinctive way of expressing herself (whenever she has a day where she drinks less than five units of alcohol, she writes “vg” and her nicknames are memorable: Vile Richard, Pretentious Jerome).
The key to how much I enjoyed this novel is that Bridget says and does what all of us sometimes feel like saying and doing, but do not dare. She buys some cut-price chocolate decorations after Christmas and eats them just for the sake of it. She has a lunchtime Bloody Mary with her friend Tom even though she is trying to stop drinking. It is consistently funny, as we see her in all her many contradictions: she is really excited to be given a try-out on camera, and the next day she has “never been so humiliated in my life”. She calls Valentine’s Day a “purely commercial, cynical enterprise” and the next morning she is excitedly waiting for the post to arrive.
But it is sad as well: when she take a pregnancy test, she is both excited and petrified. She always has fear of missing out (“The more the sun shines the more obvious it seems that others are making fuller, better use of it”) and one senses that she does not quite know what will, in the end, truly make her happy. At one point, she writes, “Oh God, am so unhappy about Daniel. I love him” which seems to sum her up. She tries to fulfil society’s expectations by excelling as a cook, being as thin as possible and providing her parents with a suitable son-in-law. But reality keeps getting in the way: she tries to be sophisticated and aloof when meeting men, but instead she finds herself “giving an involuntary raucous laugh”. But is her very failure to meet her own expectations which makes her so loveable: she is flawed, like all of us, but she is gloriously flawed.
When the novel was published in 1996, Bridget Jones was a refreshing response to stories which were mostly written about men and for a male audience. This is a very readable insight into the social and office politics of a different era where male bosses felt less constrained in their actions. It was an early portrayal of a growing trend of youngish women who had been raised to believe that they did could have a family and career, and who were getting used to the fact that this empowerment, while giving them more options in life, necessarily meant they had more difficult choices to navigate. This set of choices remain true for us now, and so while our technology may be a little more advanced, and I understand there is less lunchtime drinking in publishing than in the 1990s, but in most respects, this is a hilarious and sympathetic story which remains highly relevant today.
Love Marriage – Monica Ali
By Hannah Corcoran
In need of downtime from A-Level revision, I searched for some chick lit at Trowbridge’s WHSmith – sorry Cathy, not all of us yearn for Wuthering Heights. I wanted to read something that would keep my shortened attention span (thanks to Instagram reels) occupied. I found a vibrant paperback with its first five pages crammed with raving reviews. Love Marriage wasn’t the escapist read I hoped for but an immersive experience (perhaps minus the enticing smell of Anisah’s homecooked cauliflower pakoras). Finally, a warning for owners of a Fiat Multipla, your “bug eyed, bulge-headed Elephant Man of motoring” is defamed.
According to the Financial Times – bless, they probably need a break from reminding their subscribers to pay them £55 per month – Monica Ali forms characters who are “not just likeable, but loveable”. The novel explores the relationships of 26-year-old junior doctor, Yasmin Ghorami, with her family, friends, colleagues, and fiancé – fellow junior doctor – Joe Sangster. The novel begins with Yasmin’s anxiety surrounding her traditional Bengali parents meeting Joe’s mother – liberal, white, upper-middle class, feminist lecturer, and former model, Harriet Sangster – who Yasmin fears will violate the stability of her conservative family. Her mounting stress regarding the union of the two families is palpable as her parents – who tell Yasmin that their partnership was a “love marriage” across the Indian caste divide – appear emotionally distant. Her mother, Anisah, is eccentrically dressed and a devout Muslim, while her father, Shaokat, is a strict and reserved GP who dissects the New England Journal of Medicine for light reading. Yasmin despairs at her younger brother, Arif, an expectant father who, having recently graduated from university, is now seeking a television career but rarely leaves his bedroom. Meanwhile, unknown to Yasmin, Joe visits a psychologist weekly as he secretly struggles with a sex addiction. With themes of intergenerational conflict, violence, sexuality, infidelity, race, gender, religion, and identity, Ali interrogates the values and flaws of modern British society. She convincingly illustrates human imperfections, frustrations, desires, vulnerabilities, and fears. All characters portrayed have unbecoming traits – some more challenging to defend than others – but Ali convincingly redeems them all as fallible, but unquestionably human, products of their experiences and hardships. Love Marriage lures you in with a title that promises an idealised union, a champion of free choice, but by the novel’s end Ali presents relationships as forged through bravery, trauma, and hope- and calls for a reappraisal of which choices we consider to be truly courageous and commendable.
Having first coined the epigram “marketplace for outrage” in her 2007 Guardian article ‘The Outrage Economy’, Ali calls us to buy shades of grey in our fabrics of understanding. Set in 2016, Love Marriage builds a tense political backdrop, with Brexit and immigration entering dialogue – notably from Harriet’s dubious house party guests. Also central to the multi-narrative novel is Yasmin’s daily experience as an NHS junior doctor on a geriatric ward, where she navigates discrimination, deaths, complaints, understaffing, overworked and overinvolved colleagues, bumptious superiors, and rebellious patients. In a nod to Adam Kay’s memoir This Is Going to Hurt, Ali lays bare the unsustainable pressures on NHS workers and patients. Furthermore, Ali reminds us of the spectrum of racism that persists in society – including blatant, overt bigotry – such as when a patient’s relative insists on speaking to a ‘British doctor’, Yasmin is advised by the ironically named PALS (Patient Advice and Liaison Service) to accept the blame instead of the perpetrator. Ali also highlights subtler, less traceable forms of prejudice, such as at an awards event, when Harriet suggests to young eco-thriller novelist, Nathan Clark, that to be a published author, he should write about “something a little closer to home”. Yasmin notes Harriet’s tacit comment: “Because he’s black”, as Ali also exposes more covert forms of prejudice.
Not only masterful when confronting weighty themes, Ali also excels in depicting engrossing characters that prickle with vitality. Through maximising free indirect speech, the author reveals the elations, frustrations, and hypocrisies present within everyone in a humbling portrait of modern British society. No character is simply a protagonist, antagonist, or is reduced to a stereotype. Each defies categorisation as Ali shows that while flaws and insecurities are woven into our identities, they are neither fixed nor unworkable. Love Marriage offers the optimistic message that true happiness is not found in conventionality or normalcy. In a testament to the dynamism, resilience, and variety of humanity, Ali’s most illuminating message is communicated by Anisah: “Life is not simple.”
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
By Clotilde Chinnici
Before I even learned how to read – at the age of five, which my younger self thought was outrageously late given the premature love for books that had matured in me by then – Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was already my favourite book. I would beg my parents to read it to me out loud over and over, so many times that they probably learned it by heart before I was finally able to read it myself. Some years later, Little Women was the first book I ever read in English: I was so proud of having read an entire book in my second language, even if it was a book I knew like the back of my hand.
Little Women was set in a world not so unlike my own, a world I was somewhat familiar with. Maybe that is why it always felt like coming home whenever I picked it up to read it again. I remember treasuring the dark-blue-covered hardback edition of the book like it was my most prized possession. In some sense, I suppose it was: the book accompanied me through every season of life, from childhood holidays to moving to another country for university.
The more I read Little Women and the more I could see myself in its undeclared protagonist: Jo March. Upon further re-readings of Louisa May Alcott’s book, I noticed so many similarities between myself and Jo that I could not help but wonder: was Jo so uncannily like me or did I grow, perhaps inevitably, to resemble my favourite character from my favourite childhood book? No matter the answer, every time I revisited Little Women, I concluded that I was Jo. Like Jo, I too was convinced that my hair was my only beauty. Like Jo, I would put on plays for my family and convince everyone around me to be part of them. Like Jo, I have also been always ready to put my interests and passions before any sort of romantic relationship, as I still felt like women had to choose between their careers and love, more than 150 years after Little Women was first published. I also shared Jo’s undying love for reading and writing, my two most loyal companions in childhood and adolescence.
Much like for Jo, books would offer me an escape, an open door to adventure, where I could be whoever I wanted to be, fighting off monsters or being a Jedi in a galaxy far far away. And yet, Little Women was none of this. It did not have the magic, the fairies and fantastic creatures, or the thrilling adventures I would look for in my books. But it had heart and it had passion. And, most importantly, it had me, it allowed me to see myself between the pages I had grown to love so much. It showed me that while I may assume my life was boring and ordinary because it had no dragons and enchanted castles, it was just as extraordinary as all those adventures I lost myself in. And if I was like Jo and Jo was like me, then I was extraordinary enough to be the protagonist of my own story. And maybe, just maybe, I was extraordinary enough, like Jo and Louisa May Alcott herself, to even write it.
When I revisited the book once again into adulthood, despite feeling less like an adult and more like a grown teenager, I came to the extraordinary epiphany that I did not have to exclusively be Jo, nor any of the sisters. With Little Women, Louisa May Alcott was able to achieve something modern media still struggles to come to terms with: the fact that women come in many different shapes and forms. While, like me, you may have Jo’s love for writing and her characteristic stubbornness, you can also see myself in Beth’s passion for playing the piano or Amy’s desire to be great. And you can also aspire to be Marmee, with her kind soul and big heart. Perhaps this is the beauty of Little Women, and the reason why everyone can find someone to relate to even today. With her book, Louisa May Alcott gave her audience multiple role models to look up on, showing little girls – and boys – that there is so much they can be and so much they can grow up to do, offering many choices and possibilities for their futures, all of which are equally important and beautiful.