Dunmore wins controversial award

Orange Prize: Winter's tale from top children's author tops shortlist for new pounds 30,000 women-only fiction competition
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The Independent Online
The first winner of the Orange prize was finally announced last night, and to the relief of many it went to one of the two British writers on the six-strong shortlist.

The pounds 30,000 cheque was awarded to Helen Dunmore, who said she would spend the money "very easily" on bills and her mortgage - "people forget that writers do not get salaries". Her book, A Spell Of Winter, is the story of the love between a brother and sister set against the backdrop of the First World War. It is her third novel, and she has also published poetry and children's books. Afterwards, she said: "I would not define myself as a children's writer, poet or novelist because I want to feel we can push the boundaries of what we are."

It was a rare uncontroversial moment for a prize which has generated its fair share of controversy since its launch in January. Last month, two of its five judges lambasted the quality of the 146 books submitted for the award, which is open to women of any nationality.

Val Hennessy, a critic, was reported as saying: "I have judged several prizes before and I have seldom come across so many books that were so bad." Susan Hill, the novelist, called the quality of entries "abysmal, terrible".

Others noted the omission from the shortlist of Pat Barker, who won the Booker Prize last year for The Ghost Road, another book about the typically male subject of war, which had a largely male cast of characters. Because the prize is restricted to women, it has predictably ruffled feathers. Antonia Byatt, like Pat Barker one of the few women to have won the Booker Prize in recent years, admitted she was unlikely to enter.

"I am against anything which ghettoises women. That is my deepest feminist emotion," she told the Independent in January.

A previous launch attempt in 1994, under the sponsorship of Mitsubishi, was derailed after the company took fright at such negative publicity. The late Sir Kingsley Amis said: "If I were a woman I would not want to win this prize. One can hardly take the winner of this seriously."

But Kate Mosse, who chaired the judging panel, defended the Orange Prize against charges of sexism.

She said at the January launch that it was partly inspired by the notorious 1991 Booker Prize shortlist when all six authors were men.

Ironically, two of the shortlisted novels were written from the point of view of men and both books - Julia Blackburn's The Book of Colour and Marianne Wiggins' Eveless Eden - have a colonial flavour more usually associated with the Booker Prize.

Three other writers made last night's shortlist. They were Amy Tan, with The Hundred Secret Senses , Anne Tyler with Ladder of Years, and Pagan Kennedy with Spinsters.

The Orange Prize was set up by female publishers following a casual suggestion by the novelist Salman Rushdie - the former husband of Ms Wiggins.

Julia Blackburn, The Book of Colour, Jonathan Cape

Author's Biography: Suffolk-based author of Charles Waterton, The Emperor's Last Island and Daisy Bates in the Desert - shortlisted for the Waterstones/Esquire/Volvo non-fiction award.

Plot: Based on the lives of the author's father and grandfather, a story of childhood, memory and madness and a curse that passes down through generations, set on Mauritius.

Critic's View: "Richly textured, its heavy reliance on the fantastic leaves one feeling that a little magic realism goes a long way." Penny Perrick, The Times.

Readability: Middling.

Anne Tyler, Ladder of Years, Chatto & Windus

Author's Biography: US author of Pulitzer prize- winning novel Breathing Lessons and The Accidental Tourist. Lives in Baltimore. This is her 13th novel.

Plot: On holiday, middle-aged, diffident Delia walks out on her demanding family and makes a new life. Then old and new collide.

Critic's View: "Its surface sparkles with euphoria. Unquenchable entrancement with people's personalities and predicaments keeps the story humming along. Every scene breathes with immediacy," Peter Kemp, Sunday Times.

Readability: 10 out of 10.

Pagan Kennedy, Spinsters, Serpent's Tail

Author's Biography: An American author, this is her first novel, preceded by Stripping and Other Stories and Platforms: The Microwaved Culture of the 1970s. Former pop critic for the Village Voice, Kennedy had her own cult cable TV show and lives in Boston.

Plot: After their father dies, two middle-aged sisters break out of their circumscribed existence on a 1968 drive across the United States.

Critic's View: "This slim novel conceals interesting depths beneath an ostensibly placid surface," Pam Barrett, Sunday Times.

Readability: Not bad.

Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses, Flamingo

Author's Biography: Born in California after her parents emigrated from China. A former freelance business writer, her previous two novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, were both best- sellers.

Plot: Olivia Bishop's attempts to live according to logic are scuppered by her Chinese half-sister Kwan, who talks to ghosts and tells stories about her imaginary past life.

Critic's View: "A fierce, blinding evocation of a world beyond the perceptions we normally take for granted," Julie Myerson, Independent on Sunday.

Readability: Fairly high.

Marianne Wiggins, Eveless Eden, Flamingo

Author's Biography: US-born author of four previous novels, most recently John Dollar, and two collections of short stories. Now lives in London. Divorced from Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie.

Plot: Foreign correspondent obsessed by his ex-lover, a photo-journalist, narrates the affair and its aftermath. Set in Paris, London, Berlin and Bucharest after the fall of Communism.

Critics' View: "A novel which is so exciting that some ballast is required if you are not to skim it in your haste to learn the outcome," Helen Stevenson, The Times.

Readability: Low.

Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter, Viking

Author's Biography: Yorkshire-born award-winning poet, children's novelist and short-story writer. Author of two other adult novels.

Plot: This First World War story of love between brother and sister is a dreamlike, often disturbing narrative of loss and recovery, violent death and erotic awakening.

Critic's View: "Dunmore's language is often charmingly lyrical. Even so, the point ... is difficult to unearth." Gill Pyrah, Daily Telegraph.

Readability: Parts raunchy.