Literary feud lies behind novel choice for Costa book of the year

Andrew Miller emerges triumphant after support for biography divides the judging panel
  • @MrNickClark

The novelist Andrew Miller won the Costa Book of the Year award last night despite "bitter dissent" among the judges over whether the prize should have gone to a biography of Edward Thomas instead.

The Bristol-born writer picked up the £35,000 prize at a ceremony in central London, which also marked the 40th anniversary of the awards. Miller beat the Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes to the Novel Award before also winning Book of the Year for his sixth book, Pure. His earlier work Oxygen was shortlisted for Best Novel more than a decade ago, and was also considered for the Booker Prize.

It emerged that the judging panel, chaired by Geordie Greig, editorial director of The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and the London Evening Standard, was locked in a "fierce debate and quite bitter dissent to find the winner".

He said the judges were split over two books in particular, the eventual winner and the winner of the Biography Award. "It was not unpleasant, it was forthright," Mr Greig said. On judging the five very different categories, he remarked: "It's not like comparing apples and oranges – it's like comparing bananas and curry."

Pure follows a young engineer in 18th century Paris who is ordered by the King to demolish the city's oldest cemetery. This year marks the 14th time a novel has won Book of the Year. "It is a real and brilliant historical novel. It is a morality tale which engrosses with its vivid invocation of pre-revolutionary France," Mr Greig said. Some of the eight judges, who included the comedian Hugh Dennis and the broadcaster Mary Nightingale, believed the eventual winner of the Biography Award should have won the main prize. Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis is the account of the final five years in the life of the First World War poet. Mr Greig described it as "an incredibly subtle and brilliant biography of a poet using scant material to set the mood of the early part of the 20th Century."

It is Hollis' first prose work. He released his first collection of poems, Ground Water, in 2004 and was later shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award. Carol Ann Duffy won the Poetry Award for The Bees, her first collection since becoming Poet Laureate.

Christie Watson, a former nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital, picked up the First Novel Award for Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. The winner of the Children's Book Award, Blood Red Road, was also a debut. Moira Young's tale of a futuristic dystopia has already been optioned by Ridley Scott's production company, and is the first of a planned trilogy. Young's career has included comedy, opera singing and acting.

The Costa Book Awards were set up in 1971 as the Whitbread Literary Awards. The coffee chain took over sponsorship of the event in 2006.