A Week in Books: Andrea Levy's multiple success

Last year, Mark Haddon's nocturnal dog swept the board of major literary prizes.

Last year, Mark Haddon's nocturnal dog swept the board of major literary prizes. Over recent months, Andrea Levy's migrant saga, Small Island, has replaced The Curious Incident... as the winner that takes all. This week, after a final judging session on the suitably small island of Malta, Levy added the overall Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best book to her Whitbread and Orange triumphs. Meanwhile, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - the forceful Nigerian debut that also reached the 2004 Orange shortlist - took the award for best first book.

Small Island has bobbed about the Top Ten for months, picking up total sales not far short of half a million. It has even reached the shortlist for Romantic Novel of the Year. And I shall take a long time to forget how Levy - an object-lesson in grace with a sting in its tail - accepted the Whitbread cheque with a pointed tribute to "all those people... who work hard to ensure that the rivers in this country never run with blood".

News of Levy's richly-merited multiple success will bear plenty of repetition, and celebration. Not so long ago, she ran into the same mid-career wobble that affects so many excellent novelists attached to large number-crunching publishers. Her previous novels were widely admired, yet they never sold quite well enough to head off the threat of the corporate axe. Levy always had her sturdy champions at Hodder Headline, but not all of the firm's top brass, who now sound so proud of her achievements, proved so stalwart then.

The Independent profiled Levy when Small Island came out. However, even when it took the Orange Prize last June, another paper witlessly labelled the book a "previously low-rated title". I usually hate to say "we told you so"; but we did.

It's also apt that Levy should add the global Commonwealth Writers' Prize to her cupboard-full of gongs. Small Island shows how large-scale immigration turned the empty political vessels of the old Empire, and the new Commonwealth, into a confusing but creative reality on the streets of a transformed country. Bigot-appeasing politicians will never - and especially with a barrel-scraping election in the offing - stand up and say just how much Britain owes to its post- Windrush migrants. So we're lucky to have a generation of spirited and subtle novelists to do that job for them.

I have judged the Commonwealth Writers' Prize at its regional level, and I know from experience just how seriously its arbiters around the world take their duties. To sit in the shade of a Sri Lankan bodhi tree and scrutinise the finer points of Michael Frayn's Surrey or Sarah Hall's Lake District ( Spies and Haweswater were our regional winners in 2003) is to realise that a world of rigorous and honest criticism still exists beyond the London rumour mills. Most of the big English-language prizes work outwards from the metropolitan centres - thus a cosy lunch in a Mayfair club will assess fictional contenders from Accra or Amritsar. The Commonwealth process moves the other way, submitting work published in the powerful cities of the North (as well as elsewhere) to the judgement of expert critics across five continents. Victory in such an open arena should mean more than any blessing bestowed by a bunch of identikit London literati.

Now it appears that the Commonwealth Foundation - which bankrolls the prize - may be reluctant to go on backing a high-maintenance award that sometimes ends up in the laps of well-known novelists from affluent, developed nations. Of course I can understand why. Yet, for me, the uniquely inter-continental and collegiate nature of the judging matters as much as the addresses of the final winners. At the moment, this prize truly spans the oceans. It would be a shame if it dwindled into yet another small literary island.

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us