Griffiths' Time arrives as Lit Brits storm US awards

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The Independent Culture

A debut book published five years ago by an unknown British writer about the mysteries of time has been hailed as a major new literary work in the United States.

Jay Griffiths' A Sideways Look at Time has won the 2003 Discover Award for Non-Fiction, sponsored by the American bookshop chain Barnes and Noble, which claims to be the world's biggest bookseller. The award ensures the writer a year-long promotional campaign in B&N stores as well as a $10,000 (£5,400) prize. The judges praised the book as "original, naughty, witty, outrageous and very political".

Griffiths' triumph is part of an unprecedented sweep of success for British women authors. Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? took first and second place in the fiction awards, while Christina Lamb's book on Afghanistan, The Sewing Circles of Herat, was second in the non-fiction category.

The citation for A Sideways Look at Time says: "Jay Griffiths has produced nothing short of an original opening of the human mind, a study of what makes us tick. Her book touches nature and language and us with an enlightening spirit, and it demonstrates that we have been in the thrall of a concept of our own invention, one that we have barely acknowledged, much less understood. Her book is cleverness in the service of genius."

The award is likely to revive British interest in the book, which was first published in 1999 in this country under the title Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time by HarperCollins, but earned only lukewarm praise for its examination of the philosophical and cultural aspects of time around the world. It has been in paperback since 2000, although is believed to have sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

A spokeswoman for HarperCollins had to check yesterday to confirm that the book was still in print, and was unable to say whether the company was planning a campaign to cash in on the American award. This may be because Griffiths has switched publishers and is now working on a book about wilderness for Hamish Hamilton.

The book was turned down by several US publishers before JP Tarcher, an imprint of the Penguin group in America, picked it up for publication last year.

Griffiths, who read English at Oxford and is in her thirties, lives in mid-Wales. She turned to non-fiction, principally writing about environmental issues, after several years writing fiction. The book was commissioned after she wrote a series of articles about time.

She told The Independent yesterday: "I'm delighted with the award and feel totally vindicated. When my book came out it was mainly reviewed here by right-wing men, who didn't like it or understand it, which rather tended to prove the point I was trying to make about time being a male subject. I think it has gone down much better in America because the intellectual approach is more professional and less sexist."

Her agent, David Godwin, who also represents Christina Lamb, said: "I hope this will bring great sales for Jay in America. When the book was published here people didn't get it but all credit to the Americans for finally realising what a great book this is. It changes the way you look at the world. It has a visionary quality."

Barnes and Noble's winning books

A Sideways Look At Time by Jay Griffiths (Flamingo)

The debut book by a former journalist is a philosophical examination of how the conception of time differs among different cultures and how it was perceived in times past compared with the present day. "Jay Griffiths' mind makes connections that stun and electrify," said Barnes and Noble.

The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb (Harper Collins)

A war reporter's account of Afghanistan before and after the Taliban, focusing on ordinary people such as the women for whom sewing circles were the only social gatherings allowed. "She has employed her manifold talents to create a book of enduring importance," said the judges.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Doubleday)

The bestselling and Booker prize-nominated debut novel is a saga of family life among the Asian communities of east London, focusing on one woman's struggle to find herself amid traditional Muslim values. The Barnes and Noble judges said: "Ali must now be ranked as one of the English language's foremost young writers."

What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller (Penguin)

The second book by the former Independent on Sunday columnist Heller was also Booker-nominated. It tells the story of a sex scandal involving a woman teacher and an under-age student as seen through the prim eyes of another woman. "A perfectly executed tale," said the judges.