REVIEW: Durham University Showcase, Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota

28 October 2019

12 October

St. Chad’s College

Review by Kate Baguley

Durham University was showcased at its best, in a quaint chapel located in St Chad’s College, on nothing short of a sunny day. This made the perfect location to introduce the audience to two newcomers to the school of English, Naomi Booth and Sunjeev Sahota. Chaired by Durham University’s Dr Stephen Regan, the authors read from their novels, discussed the process of writing, and explained their influences from the current political and environmental climate.

Naomi Booth’s novel Sealed tells the story of a couple who escape the city due to a skin-sealing epidemic to find equally horrific goings-on in the countryside. The novel explores motherhood, the “underwritten” concept of pregnancy, and the environment, making the characters at risk from both their own bodies and the world around them. The novel was also shortlisted for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker’ Prize 2018. Booth stated that the idea for the novel came out of her academic research on our climate, the book acting as a dystopian warning for us to change our actions before such epidemics occur. Sunjeev Sahota’s debut novel, Ours Are the Streets, explored political radicalisation. His most recent novel, The Year of the Runaways, follows the experience of migrant workers in Britain. The novel explores concepts of home, place, and belonging, reflecting on immigration laws and attitudes in our country. The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was awarded with a European Union Prize for literature in 2017.

The event began with both authors reading excerpts from their novels, transporting us into their fictional worlds. Booth’s first extract focused on human skin, referring to the way in which it heals itself as “magic”, detailing the devastation that this skin epidemic is causing, all due to environmental pollution. One of Sahota’s excerpts focused on a character’s displacement from their environment in a comic moment in which they mistake a lollipop lady for the police. This displacement interrogates notions of home for migrants, exploring the idea of foreignness, as does Booth in Sealed with the body becoming foreign with disease.

In talking of the craft of writing, Sahota commented on writing as a way “to pass the time”, giving both a sadness and a relief when a book is finished. Booth agreed, commenting on the effort and enthusiasm that goes into a novel through the writing and editing process. The novelists have differing backgrounds in relation to literature, with Booth having studied English at Cambridge University, and Sahota studying Maths at Imperial College London. However, Sahota assured us that Maths and English are not opposites, and how there is a “mechanics” to writing; he approaches this from a different angle yet achieves the same result as Naomi– a brilliant novel. Stephen Regan explained the need for these newcomers, explaining that the English department “resisted” creative writing, yet saw the sheer volume of students asking for it, and have now provided.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.

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