Barry's 'flawed' novel wins Costa prize

Judging panel forgives poor ending after central character wins them over

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Wednesday 28 January 2009 01:00

The novelist Sebastian Barry was named the winner of the Costa Book of the Year award last night in spite of writing a novel that was, according to the judges "flawed in many ways".

The decision to award Barry, a 53-year-old Dubliner, with the £25,000 Costa prize for The Secret Scripture was in spite of the fact that the book had "a lot wrong with it" in the eyes of the nine-strong judging panel.

Barry's book, which had been tipped to win the 2008 Booker Prize and only narrowly lost out during the final judging, was selected from a shortlist of five writers who were named category winners this month.

The story revolves around Roseanne McNulty, who is facing an uncertain future on the approach of her 100th birthday as the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where she has spent most of her adult life, prepares to close.

Matthew Parris, the columnist and chair of the judges, said the competition between Barry and Adam Foulds, who nearly claimed the prize for his poetic works, The Broken Word, was "extraordinarily close". Parris said the judges agreed to give the prize to Barry's book despite its less than perfect ending.

"It was an extraordinarily close finish among the judges," said Parris. "There was huge support for both. The feeling among judges was that there was a lot wrong with it [The Secret Scripture]. It was flawed in many ways, almost no one liked its ending. For some, this was fatal. I don't think the ending works, no-body thought the ending worked. But there was a feeling among the judges that many great works of literature are also flawed."

It was the narrative strength of the central character, Roseanne, which helped Barry triumph, he added. "Some thought the voice of [the character] Mr Green did not work as well as Roseanne's. In Roseanne, a narrator has been created that is so transcendent that it redeems all the structural weaknesses of the book."

William Hill bookmakers had predicted that the book would win. Meanwhile, Foulds, 33, was hailed as an extraordinary talent for his poetic sequence that charts a young man's progress through a dark period in British colonial history – the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya.

Foulds, who lives in south London and is a graduate of the University of East Anglia, wrote his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, while working as a forklift driver. He went on to win The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award in April 2008. The Broken Word is his first work of poetry.

The greatest surprise of the night was that Diana Athill's memoir, Somewhere Towards The End, which she published aged 91 and which was tipped to claim the top prize, did not come close. Parris said while there had been "affection" for the memoir, it had not been a serious contender.

Nevertheless, said Somewhere Towards The End accounted for 63 per cent of the combined sales of the five books since the beginning of 2009.

Sadie Jones had also been in the running for her first novel, The Outcast, as was Michelle Magorian, for her children's book, Just Henry.

The award was originally established in 1971 as the Whitbread prize. The first winner was selected by a panel chaired by Parris, and included Rosamund Pike, Michael Buerk and Alexander Armstrong.

Extract: Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture

"That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods. The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.

That is Sligo town, I mean. Sligo made me and Sligo undid me but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone.

The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves."

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