Andrea Levy's 'Small Island' judged best book to win the Orange Prize

All the chairwomen from the first 10 years of judging panels, including the broadcasters Rosie Boycott and Sue MacGregor and the novelist Ahdaf Souief, came together to re-read all the first decade's winning novels.

And last night, at a ceremony in London, Andrea Levy, last year's winner with Small Island, a story of post-war immigration, was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction's best of the best.

Levy emerged victorious in a field which boasted writers such as Carol Shields, Helen Dunmore and Anne Michaels - whose novel Fugitive Pieces became a massive international success on the back of its Orange Prize win in 1997, having sold very few copies before being nominated.

The writer Kate Mosse, a co-founder of the prize and chair of the judges, said all of the books continued to have resonance with readers. But Small Island had proved particularly successful as it was a book that meant different things to different people.

"On the one hand, it's the most wonderful explanation of the country that we are now in terms of race and gender and class and how we all fit together," she said. "On the other hand, it's a wonderful comic novel and a lot of people enormously enjoy the humour and the voices and the dialogue. It's unusual to have at the heart of a novel four key characters - two men, two women, two black two white - and yet it's done so effortlessly."

Mosse admitted the prize seemed quite young to be celebrating in such a fashion. But she said the idea for marking the anniversary had come from libraries and booksellers. Many have been doing promotions or special book club sessions featuring the 10 winning books.

Radio 4's Woman's Hour held its own poll of listeners who also voted for Levy as best of the best. This year's victor, Lionel Shriver, came second in the radio vote with We Need to Talk about Kevin and Michaels' Fugitive Pieces was third.

Mosse said: "The booksellers said that as the Orange Prize has grown in reputation and profile, there would be people who have read some of the more recent ones, but might not have read the earlier ones. They thought they could sell all 10.

"Best of the best is a great opportunity to introduce a new generation of readers to some of the outstanding novels they may have missed first time round."

When the Orange Prize was first announced, it was not universally welcomed. Auberon Waugh called it the "Lemon Prize" and A S Byatt registered her opposition to "anything which ghettoises women". But the prize has largely overcome the initial opposition.

Andrea Levy, the British-born daughter of Jamaican parents, takes the experience of the Windrush generation of immigrants as the centre point of Small Island, her fourth novel. It tells the story of Gilbert Joseph, a young Jamaican who fights for the Allies with the RAF but finds he is less welcome in England after the war as a civilian. Married to Hortense, who is shocked at how the English live, the novel weaves together their lives with those of Queenie Bligh, their white English landlady whose husband, Bernard, was also with the RAF during the war.

Previous winners

1996 Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter

1997 Anne Michaels for Fugitive Pieces

1998 Carol Shields for Larry's Party

1999 Suzanne Berne for A Crime in the Neighbourhood

2000 Linda Grant for When I Lived in Modern Times

2001 Kate Grenville for The Idea of Perfection

2002 Ann Patchett for Bel Canto

2003 Valerie Martin for Property

2004 Andrea Levy for Small Island

2005 Lionel Shriver for We Need to Talk About Kevin

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