Recognition - at last - as Shriver wins Orange Prize

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An author who has enjoyed critical but not mass acclaim for nearly 20 years has finally hit the big time by winning the £30,000 Orange Prize for fiction with her story of a high-school massacre.

An author who has enjoyed critical but not mass acclaim for nearly 20 years has finally hit the big time by winning the £30,000 Orange Prize for fiction with her story of a high-school massacre.

At a ceremony in London Lionel Shriver took the award for We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which a mother considers her shortcomings as a parent after her son, 15, kills seven fellow pupils. Its theme echoes that of the novelVernon God Little by DBC Pierre, which took the Man Booker Prize two years ago. But Shriver stressed: "School-shooting books wasn't a genre when I started it."

Ms Shriver, whose book had been rejected by 30 British publishers before being accepted by the small independent Serpent's Tail, said she was overwhelmed.

Producing notes that she said were marked "acceptance speech for Orange Prize, potentially humiliating in retrospect," she said the last prize she had won was an architectural commentary on her school cafeteria when she was seven years old. "That's not just a joke, from which you may infer that I have had a number of very lean and hard years."

Jenni Murray, the broadcaster, who chaired the judges, said: "We Need to Talk About Kevin is a book that acknowledges what many women worry about but never express: the fear of becoming a mother and the terror of what kind of child one might bring into the world. It's a courageous book which will resonate with everyone who has had a child or thought about having one."

The American writer, who lives in London with her jazz drummer husband, said one of the motivations behind the novel was exploring whether she herself should have children.

"When I started this book, I was in my early forties and in the reproductive last gasp. I still hadn't had any children and had always been queasy about the idea," she said. The consequence of writing the book was "I scared myself witless and I still don't have any children".

The novel had already soared into the bestseller lists after publicity about the prize - the first of her seven novels to do so.

Ms Shriver thanked the bravery of the judges for choosing the book which she said was not an obvious choice. "I think it's a difficult book, it's a dark book, it's an uncomfortable book and it's a book about someone that a lot of people have difficulty liking... there are a lot of people out there who hate this book," she said.

Shriver, who changed her name from Margaret Ann when she was 15, said: "I'm 48 and have been getting good reviews for 20 years. I really wanted this award."

Her rivals for the honour were Jane Gardam, the bookmakers' favourite with Old Filth, and second favourite Joolz Denby, whose story Billie Morgan was inspired by her experiences as a tattooed biker chick. The other contenders were Sheri Holman with The Mammoth Cheese, Marina Lewycka for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and Maile Meloy for Liars and Saints.

The Orange Prize, now in its 10th year, is for the best novel of the year written in English by a woman. A new prize, a £10,000 bursary for emerging talent, was presented to Diana Evans for her novel 26a.

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