Costa Book Awards 2013: Bernardine Bishop leads all-female shortlist

Maggie O’ Farrell, Evie Wyld and Kate Atkinson compete with late author Bernardine Bishop for the title of best novel
  • @MrNickClark

Bernardine Bishop, the youngest witness in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, has received a posthumous Costa Award nomination for Unexpected Lessons in Love, written half a century after her last work.

The Costa Book Awards shortlist, which has five categories, was announced tonight with an all-female line up competing for the best novel prize.

Among them is Ms Bishop’s novel, which was published six months before she died aged 73. The judges described it as an “unflinching, darkly funny story of love, obsession and illness that is unexpected in every way”.

The author was called as the youngest and final witness to support DH Lawrence’s controversial work, which was being prosecuted in 1960 under the Obscene Publications Act. Her evidence was seen as crucial to proving the book was not a corrupting force.

She wrote two novels – Perspectives in 1961 and Playing House two years later – but gave up writing to teach and bring up her two children. She later went on to have a distinguished career as a psychotherapist.

Unexpected Lessons in Love is an autobiographical novel following a retired psychotherapist dealing with bowel cancer. Ms Bishop had been given the all-clear by her oncologist and the day after sat down to write her first novel in 50 years.

Her book will be up against Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’ Farrell; All the Birds by Evie Wyld, who made this year’s Granta best of young British novelists list and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

The poetry category pits recent Forward Prize for Poetry winner Michael Symmons Roberts against Robin Robertson and Helen Mort as well as Clive James for his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The judges said it was a “towering achievement that will stand the test of time”.

The biography category includes Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike, which recently won the Samuel Johnson Prize as well as Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink. Thomas Harding and Gavin Francis are also in the running.

Among those shortlisted for the children’s book prize is 27-year-old Ross Montgomery, who had worked as a pig farmer and a postman before turning to teaching. Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door is his first book. “This wasn’t expected and to get this kind of recognition is more than I could have hoped for,” he said. “I’m chuffed.”

The first novel categories comprise work by Sam Byers, Nathan Filer, Kate Clancy, an established poet, and Sathnam Sangera, who has previously been nominated by the Costas but in the biography category.

The winners in the five categories will each receive £5,000 and the overall winner will be named at an awards ceremony in January with a cheque for £30,000.