A portait of a woman next to a picture of abook cover with the text \"The Rabbit Hutch a novel Tess Gunty\"
Tess Gunty’s novel, “The Rabbit Hutch,” is set in a dilapidated Midwestern apartment complex over the course of one formidably hot July week in Vacca Vale, Indiana. (Contributed photo)

Tess Gunty wins the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘The Rabbit Hutch’

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Tess Gunty has won the 2023 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. Her winning book, “The Rabbit Hutch,” published by Alfred A. Knopf, winds through the walls and lives of those living in the dilapidated Midwestern apartment complex known as the Rabbit Hutch. The novel is set over the course of one formidably hot July week in Vacca Vale, Indiana, and it follows the story of the mysterious and beautiful Blandine, culminating in a shocking and strange act of violence.

Gunty will receive the award during a public event at Virginia Commonwealth University on Nov. 16. The event will involve a reading, a moderated discussion and a Q&A. Details of the event and additional materials will be made available at firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event/.

Gunty was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 22nd year. The others were Noor Naga for “If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English” (Graywolf Press) and Eloghosa Osunde for “Vagabonds!” (Riverhead Books).

According to the publisher’s official synopsis of “The Rabbit Hutch”:

Blandine isn’t like the other residents of her building.

An online obituary writer. A young mother with a dark secret. A woman waging a solo campaign against rodents — neighbors, separated only by the thin walls of a low-cost housing complex in the once bustling industrial center of Vacca Vale, Indiana.
Welcome to the Rabbit Hutch.

Ethereally beautiful and formidably intelligent, Blandine shares her apartment with three teenage boys she neither likes nor understands, all, like her, now aged out of the state foster care system that has repeatedly failed them, all searching for meaning in their lives.

“The Rabbit Hutch” is the recipient of the 2022 National Book Award for Fiction, the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize and the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize. It was a finalist for the John Leonard Prize and the British Book Award for Debut Fiction. It was named one of 12 Essential Reads by The New Yorker and a best book of the year by The New York Times, NPR, People, Time, Oprah Daily, LitHub, The Chicago Tribune and Kirkus. The novel has been optioned for film rights by Fremantle and producer Richard Brown.

The New York Times Book Review says that in “The Rabbit Hutch,” Gunty “has a way of pressing her thumb on the frailty and absurdity of being a person in the world; all the soft, secret needs and strange intimacies.” Previous VCU Cabell First Novelist Award winner Raven Leilani says Gunty “writes with a keen, sensitive eye about all manner of intimacies — the kind we build with other people, and the kind we cultivate around ourselves and our tenuous, private aspirations.”

Gunty holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University, where she was a Lillian Vernon Fellow. She studied English with a concentration in creative writing at the University of Notre Dame. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Granta, LitHub, Joyland, Freeman’s, the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere. Gunty grew up in South Bend, Indiana, and now lives in Los Angeles.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU MFA in Creative Writing program’s yearlong novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 prize and participates in an event, traditionally in person, with two additional panelists, most often the agent and editor of the winning book. The event, open to all, focuses on the creation, publication and promotion of the author’s first novel.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of the VCU MFA in Creative Writing program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the Friends of VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Over 200 novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A universitywide panel of readers, in addition to members of the Richmond community, reduced the submissions to a Top 20 Long List. MFA in Creative Writing students narrowed the submissions to a Top 10 Short List and then to three finalists. The final round of judging included the MFA students and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award Committee, with the previous year’s winner, Dawnie Walton, acting as a tie-breaking vote if needed.

In addition to Gunty, winners of the award have included Dawnie Walton for “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev,” Raven Leilani for “Luster,” John Englehardt for “Bloomland,” Ling Ma for “Severance,” Hernán Díaz for “In the Distance,” Jade Chang for “The Wangs vs. the World” and Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House.” A full list of previous winners can be found at www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu/winners/.

The 2024 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is soon to announce a call for submissions for debut novels published in 2023, with a final submission deadline of Dec. 30, 2023. For more information, visit firstnovelist.vcu.edu/.