Kate Atkinson was the winner last night of the pounds 21,000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, one of the most prestigious in the book trade.
She won for her first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, confounding pundits who had overwhelmingly backed Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh .
Ms Atkinson, 44, is only the second woman to win the Book of the Year Award since 1985 - the first was Joan Brady for Theory of War in 1993 - and only the third winner to come from the "first novel" category.
Rushdie was not present last night, despite his recent decision to come out of hiding. The award will be a disappointment for him; last year he was short-listed for the Booker Prize - also for The Moor's Last Sigh - but to the surprise of the book world he lost to Pat Barker's The Ghost Road. The other hot contender for the Whitbread award was Roy Jenkins' Biography of Gladstone, but the chairman of the judges, Richard Hoggart, would admit only that Rushdie had made the top three.
Professor Hoggart, former professor of English Literature at Birmingham University, also said the decision of the nine-strong judging panel had not been unanimous. "Behind the Scenes at the Museum is an imaginative account of working class family life in York over three generations - a remarkable achievement," he added.
Ms Atkinson launched her writing career after winning a Women's Own magazine short-story competition in 1988. She has earned her living as a teacher, community worker, home-help and chambermaid.
The Whitbread Book of the Year Award unusually forces five categories of writing to compete for the pounds 21,000 prize: biography, novel, first novel, poetry and children's novel - which has never yet won.
The previous winners from the first-novel category have been Jeff Torrington for Swing Hammer Swing! in 1992, and Paul Sayer for The Comforts of Madness in 1988.Reuse content