Slavery novel wins women's fiction prize as judges ignore literary stars

Little-known American author's tale of life on a New Orleans plantation puts Zadie Smith and Donna Tartt in the shade
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The Independent Online

A novel about slavery by the unfancied American author Valerie Martin was the surprise winner of the Orange prize for women's fiction yesterday.

The judges ignored the claims of the hotly tipped Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith. Instead they gave the £30,000 award to Property, which views the operation of slavery on a 19th-century sugar plantation in Louisiana through the eyes of the owner's privileged and petulant wife, Manon Gaudet.

The Nobel prizewinning novelist Toni Morrison has called Martin's book "a marvel". Ahdaf Soueif, the novelist who chaired this year's judging panel, praised Property as "a novel which deals with a huge subject with originality" and which "performs the difficult task of depicting dramatic events with stylish restraint".

Ms Soueif said the choice came after a "long and impassioned debate" among the judges, who also included the model-turned-writer Sophie Dahl.

Last night Martin received the prize, which since 1996 has been endowed by an anonymous benefactor, at a ceremony in Lincoln's Inn Fields, central London.

Martin, 54, grew up in New Orleans and lives in New York State. Property, published in the UK by Abacus, is her seventh novel. She has also written two collections of short stories and, most recently, a biography of St Francis of Assisi.

Property competed on the shortlist against another novel of the Deep South, Donna Tartt's The Little Friend - the 2/1 favourite - as well as Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, Carol Shields's Unless, Shena Mackay's Heligoland and Anne Donovan's Buddha Da. As in 2001 and 2002, when the prize respectively went to the unfancied Kate Grenville and Ann Patchett, the panel confounded tipsters and pundits by thrusting a lesser-known novelist into the limelight.

Property recreates the voice and attitudes of the spoilt and confined Manon, mistress of the slave estate but still, in effect, her abusive husband's chattel. A slave rebellion brews on the failing plantation, with stormy weather matching the mood of impending doom.

Through Manon's jealousy of the slave-girl Sarah, her husband's lover and mother of two children by him, Martin compares the different kinds of powerlessness endured by white and black women in the ante-bellum South.

Martin based Property on research among the narratives of Southern plantation life written in the 19th century by former slaves themselves, as well as by slave owners.

Manon's foot-stamping frustration sometimes recalls the Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind. And critics have also pointed out that the motif of slavery's injustices witnessed by a pampered, but imprisoned, white woman also occurs in the 1991 novel Cambridge, by the British author Caryl Phillips.

Martin has said that she feared "it would be thought that the views of the narrator were my own. But people have responded enthusiastically to the the fact that the historical period is described without there being some person from the future saying it's corrupt."

FROM 'PROPERTY' BY VALERIE MARTIN

I have never liked my husband's brother, Charles Gaudet. He's an arrogant man, boorish and supercilious, like my husband, only worse because he has been successful. He is the youngest of three brothers and the richest of all. Since my husband's murder, he has taken to strolling around this property as if he owned it, addressing me in solicitous tones, as if I were addled and must have every word repeated. As soon as I was well enough to receive a visitor, he was at the door, eager to get at my husband's books to see what chance he had of being repaid the money he was fool enough to loan his brother.

Rose was so poor at dressing my hair, I had her brush it out so it fell over my shoulders. I'd disguised my lip with rouge, my cheek with powder, and fixed my elbow so that it rested on the arm of the chair, thereby lifting my shoulder to a normal position. My recovery had left me thin and pale; the pallor intensified the blue of my eyes, or so I told myself. Charles's eyes betrayed only the mildest alarm when he came into the parlor, where I had arranged myself to receive him. I held out my left hand as he approached and he bent over it, brushing his lips against the bridge of my fingers. "My dearest sister," he said. "You have been in my prayers every minute."

"Do you pray so often?" I said.

He stepped back, remembering that I had never been charmed by him.

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