A Week in Books

The unsung prize that always gets it right
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The Independent Culture
ANOTHER ORANGE Prize shortlist, another pointless row about the insularity of British women novelists. In the past couple of days, its panel has done a Hoddle and blamed the media for the reported view that our gels only tell "parochial" tales in comparison with the broader horizons of those American broads. I could take the rest of the page uprooting this hardy annual; but why not just read our interview with wide-ranging Stevie Davies on page 11? Meanwhile, check out the simmering debate on the lively Orange website: www.orangeprize.com.

Misquoted or not, the Orange judges do know how to make a splash. One of my favourite fiction prizes, a contest with a vast cultural range and enviable record of picking first-rate winners, has announced its results for 1999. And almost no one seems to have noticed. I suspect that the folk who run the Commonwealth Writers Prize, across five continents, don't much care for hyperbolic headlines. Never mind; this is the prize that crowned Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and then rewarded figures such as Peter Carey, Earl Lovelace and Mordecai Richler.

Fiction and cricket seem to be the only activities that hold the Commonwealth together now. At least both can still deliver world-class performances. This year's play-offs (in New Zealand) saw Beryl Bainbridge going into bat as regional winner for "Eurasia". The overall award went to Australian Murray Bail for Eucalyptus (Harvill, pounds 6.99) - a magical blend of love- story, folk-tale and arboreal lore that ought to make gum trees as sexy as tulips. Next week he, like all Commonwealth winners, will have an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. As a memorable winner's perk, it beats the usual glass of warm turpentine in the Groucho.

Victor in the First Book category was The Electrical Field by the Canadian newcomer Kerri Sakamoto (Macmillan, pounds 12.99): in part a Miss Smilla-style murder mystery set in a Japanese community in Ontario, but also a quietly devastating exploration of the way that past wrongs poison present lives. Much of it might seem domestic - even "parochial" - at first blush. All of its turbulence seethes beneath the surface. Which is where perceptive critics - and prize judges - should always be prepared to look.