Tremain's 'empathetic' tale of an immigrant wins the Orange Prize

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The British novelist Rose Tremain has won the £30,000 Orange Prize for women’s fiction for The Road Home, her tale of an immigrant from eastern Europe.

The chair of the judges, the broadcaster and journalist Kirsty Lang, said the award was particularly deserved because, despite her long and successful career, Tremain had been "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" when it came to winning top literary prizes.

Accepting her award, Tremain defended the idea of a literary prize for women's fiction against its – mainly male – critics, including the writer Tim Lott. She said: "Come on you guys, stop grumping. This is a prize which celebrates women's fiction. In this year when A L Kennedy has won the Costa, when Anne Enright has won the Booker and when Doris Lessing has won the Nobel, I think there's a lot to celebrate." Talking about her winning novel, Tremain said: "This is a subject which is very much in the air. We think of immigrants as a group, even when tragedies occur such as the Chinese cockle pickers.

"What fiction can do is take an individual and present that individual like us with all his heartbreak and longing and aspirations."

Tremain had been the hot favourite to win the award, presented at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Ladbrokes stopped taking bets on her to win on Tuesday after a run of money left her 1/2 favourite.

It is only the second time that the favourite has won the prize, the first being last year when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won withHalf of a Yellow Sun.

Explaining why the judges chose Tremain, Lang said: "It was the way she managed to get inside the head of an eastern European migrant coming to England. It's a very warm and empathetic novel."

Lang said The Road Home gave an insight into the experience of immigrants in the UK: "This is one of the biggest migrations in the history of this country and yet the average Briton probably knows very little about their lives. It captures the zeitgeist."

She added: "Tremain is one of our greatest contemporary authors and she has been overlooked by the literary establishment, always the bridesmaid, never the bride."

Tremain's novel Restoration was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989 and made into a film, while The Colour was on the shortlist for the Orange Prize in 2004. But she has won a Whitbread Novel of the Year award, a Prix Femina Etranger and a Dylan Thomas Prize.

Other novels which were shortlisted included When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson, Fault Lines by Nancy Huston, The Outcast by Sadie Jones, Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill and Lottery by Patricia Wood.