Still the greatest story ever told

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An eclectic shortlist in the Whitbread Book Awards includes poet laureate Ted Hughes's retelling of a 2,000-year-old story and atheist novelist Jim Crace's challenge to another 2 ,000-year-old story.

Crace's fictional account of Jesus's 40 days in the desert won the Whitbread Novel Award. Quarantinewas previously shortlisted for the Booker Prize and will compete with three other works for the main pounds 23,000 Whitbread Book Of The Year award to be announced later this month.

Yesterday the judges decided on the best novel, best first novel, biography and poetry collection, effectively making a shortlist of four works, each receiving pounds 2,000.

The win by Crace is notable as he previously won the Whitbread First Novel award in 1986 for Continent and, indeed, is the first author in the history of the awards to win both the best novel and best first novel prizes.

The other category winners are: The Ventriloquist's Tale by Pauline Melville, a first novel set in the savannahs of south America, where a brother and sister embark on an incestuous relationship; a life of the French writer and politician Victor Hugo by Graham Robb in the biography section; and Tales From Ovid by Ted Hughes - the poet laureate's retelling of the Metamorphoses myths first set down 2, 000 years ago in Augustan Rome.

Jim Crace's reworking of the Lenten Gospel story has been described as a compelling account of the physical challenge of the desert and the limits of human endurance, as well as an interpretation of Jesus Christ's life.

Crace said last night: "I'm a pretty dyed-in-the-wool, uncompromising atheist. It was the reason I wrote this book.I wanted to confront the story of Jesus's 40 days fasting in the desert with one scientific fact: you would die in the Judaean desert with no food.

"In the book Jesus dies after 30 days. But many Christian critics have enjoyed the book.

"And of course you could explain it by saying that Jesus died and was resurrected. So you can approach it from an aetheistic or religious point of view."

A separate pounds 10,000 award for the Whitbread Children's Book Of The Year will be made at the awards dinner on 27 January.