Andrea Levy takes on the men - and claims novel victory

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Andrea Levy, the winner of the Orange Prize for women's fiction, has beaten the Man Booker victor Alan Hollinghurst to take the Whitbread award for best novel, it was announced last night

Andrea Levy, the winner of the Orange Prize for women's fiction, has beaten the Man Booker victor Alan Hollinghurst to take the Whitbread award for best novel, it was announced last night

Her novel, Small Island, about post-war multicultural Britain, defeated Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, a dissection of Thatcherite Britain, as well as Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres and Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, a former Whitbread winner.

Levy will now go into battle against the winners of the other Whitbread categories - first novel, poetry, biography and children's - for the £30,000 book of the year title to be announced later in the month.

Levy had previously expressed her delight at getting a chance to prove herself in competition against men, because some commentators still downgraded the Orange Prize for being for women writers only.

This year women won three of the five Whitbread categories.

Geraldine McCaughrean scooped a record-breaking third children's book award with Not the End of the World, and Eve Green, by 25-year-old Susan Fletcher, beat the much-hyped Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke for the first novel award. The poetry prize was won by Michael Symmons Roberts, a BBC documentary-maker and librettist for the composer James MacMillan, for his fourth collection, Corpus.

And John Guy, an academic turned writer, was the victor in the biography section with his study of Mary, Queen of Scots, which he is now helping to turn into a film.

Levy was named the 6/4 favourite to win book of the year on 25 January by the bookmakers William Hill, with Guy's biography second favourite at 3/1. The book of the year has been most frequently a novel.

Fletcher, who only recently graduated from the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, said she was surprised. "I feel I was a real outsider, so I'm not sure how it happened," she said. Guy seemed similarly stunned. "I never expected to win. I enjoyed writing the book so much and somehow I felt it should be hard graft to win a prize," he said.

Symmons Roberts said it was wonderful to win any competition but particularly one judged by his peers. But he said: "It must be incredibly difficult to make a choice between a children's book, a biography and two novels for book of the year. I don't know how they do it, but I'm delighted to be on the pile."

McCaughrean, who has written nearly 140 books, said it was good to prove she had not been a flash in the pan with her first Whitbread win in 1987. This book, for teenagers, was one of her most serious and had a "horrible topicality" in its story of Noah and vast floods.

But she was confident she would not prove the overall victor. "Two children's books have won in the last three years [ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon last year and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman in 2001] and there won't be a third."

The awards were set up more than 30 years ago to celebrate the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland. They are worth £5,000 each with an extra £25,000 going to the winner of the overall title. That will be chosen by a jury chaired by the broadcaster, Sir Trevor McDonald. The shortlist for the WH Smith Award, announced yesterday, snubbed Hollinghurst to nominate Charles McCarry's Old Boys, Colm Toibin's The Master, Muriel Spark's The Finishing School, Neil Jordan's Shade, Orhan Pamuk for Snow and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

WHAT THE WHITBREAD JUDGES SAID

Novel: Small Island by Andrea Levy

What the judges said: "What could have been a didactic or preachy prospect turns out to be hilarious, moving, humane and eye-popping. It's hard to think of anybody not enjoying it."

First novel: Eve Green by Susan Fletcher

What the judges said: "With a luminous quality of writing which lifts it out of the category of a simple coming-of-age novel into something approaching poetry, Eve Green stood out for all the judges and will appeal to readers of any sex."

Biography: My Heart is My Own - The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy

What the judges said: "An impressive and readable piece of scholarship, which cannot fail but leave the reader moved and intrigued by this the most tragic and likeable of queens."

Poetry: Corpus by Michael Symmons Roberts

What the judges said: "An outstanding, perfectly weighted collection that inspires meditation on the nature of the soul... reading it feels like making an exciting discovery and coming back to an acknowledged classic all at once."

Children's Book: Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean

What the judges said: "With stunning imaginative force, rank physicality and luminous writing, this unsentimental book makes the old story utterly new, and engages with crucial matters - tolerance and the dangers of fundamentalism"

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