Gulag book shortlisted for Ondaatje Prize

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An account of a year spent teaching in a remote Mongolian village will vie with a history of the Soviet Union gulag for £10,000 in a literary competition to find a book which best evokes a "spirit of place".

The unusual criterion of the inaugural Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, founded by Christopher Ondaatje, the philanthropist and adventurer, means the shortlist of six, unveiled yesterday, includes a memoir, a novel, a biography and an exploration of ideas.

Richard Holmes, Coleridge's biographer and one of a panel of judges, including Beryl Bainbridge, the novelist, said that there was no other prize like it. He said: "It is much more than a mere physical description of a landscape or cityscape. It is more than an exotic landscape or local colour.

"It is a particular kind of rootedness that may exist in geography, history, memory, or in particular people. We have looked for books that take us on some kind of journey, and favoured those that have that indefinable quality; an accumulated atmosphere; a power to haunt the reader long after the last page is turned."

Gulag: A History, the first fully documented history of the Soviet Union camp system, by Anne Applebaum, competes with Jonathan Bate's biography of the poet John Clare, who wrote about nature and his rural childhood in Northamptonshire. The Voices, by Susan Elderkin, one of Granta's young novelists of the decade, is the only novel to have been selected. It is a strong evocation of the Australian Bush.

Mountains of the Kind, by Robert Macfarlane, combines a climbing memoir with a cultural history of people's responses to mountains, while Clouds of Glory is the memoir of Bryan Magee, the former MP turned author, of growing up in working-class Hoxton, east London, in the 1930s. The final contender is Hearing Birds Fly, which is Louisa Waugh's account of a year living and teaching in a remote Mongolian village.

More than 100 books were entered by publishers or "called in" by the judges. The prize incorporates a previous Royal Society of Literature prize: the Winifred Holtby prize for fiction of a regional character. Winners include Kazuo Ishiguro and Hilary Mantel.

The literary prize is to be presented at a dinner on 18 May.

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