A Week in Books: Andrea Levy's multiple success
Friday 01 April 2005
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.
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