'Next Mark Haddon' leads Orange prize shortlist

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The Independent Culture

When Mark Haddon wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, narrated by a boy suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, it became an overnight literary sensation, scooping the country’s top book prizes and epitomising the best in “outsider” fiction.

Yesterday, as the shortlist for the Orange Broadband Prize for women’s fiction was unveiled, the chair of judges hinted that a similar treat could be coming in the shape of a debut novel by US author Patricia Wood.

Kirsty Lang said that Lottery, the story of a young man with a low IQ who has a winning ticket and finds himself surrounded by people claiming to be his friends, bore the hallmarks of a bestseller in a similar way as Haddon’s 2003 Whitbread prize winner.

“I think this book will appeal to the same readers as Mark Haddon’s book, and it is another first novel with a similar, fairy-tale, cartoon-like quality in parts,” she said.

Ms Wood’s book is among three first novels to be selected for the Orange prize, alongside Sadie Jones’s, The Outcast, and Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals. Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, was also selected, along with Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad and Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines.

Wood, a 54-year-old writer from Seattle, who has served in the US army, worked as a horse riding instructor, assisted in shark research and now lives in Hawaii on a boat, said her book was inspired by autobiographical detail. Her father once won the Washington state lottery.

This is only the second year in the prize’s 12-year history that so many debut novelists have appeared on the shortlist with 2000 the only year to have carried four such works.

Ms Lang, a broadcaster and journalist, commended Ms Huston for her novel that perfectly distilled the “stifling hypocrisies” of the middles classes after the Second World War, and likened Ms Mendelson’s family drama to a “comedy of manners”. Ms Mendelson, 35, is among the youngest on the list with Ms O’Neill, 34, whose book dramatises the life of a wayward 13-year-old.

Ms Lang said Ms Tremain’s 10th novel, about an eastern European immigrant in Britain, was “a very important book dealing with contemporary issues” while Ms Jones’ work could be read as a metaphor for the relationship between the US and Iraq.

Surprisingly, a clutch of established writers including the current Booker winner, Anne Enright, who was longlisted for her award-winning Irish family saga, The Gathering, did not make the shortlist with the likes of Linda Grant, a previous Orange prize winner, Deborah Moggach and Stella Duffy.

Ms Lang said this prize did not, like some others, reward good writing that was not an accessible read. The main criteria for selecting the shortlist was the “would-you-press-this-book-into-the-hands-of-a-friend?” factor, and not merely literary excellence and originality.

The winner of the prize, whose judges include the writers Bel Mooney and Philippa Gregory and the journalist Lisa Allardice, will be announced on 4 June.