THE pounds 30,000 Orange Prize for fiction by women, which incited controversy when the chair of the judging panel allegedly accused British authors of being "insular" and "parochial", last night went to a first novel that explores the malaise of white American suburbia in the early Seventies.
Suzanne Berne's A Crime in the Neighbourhood, one of five North American novels on the short list of six, takes place in 1972 in the wealthy Washington district of Spring Hill during the Watergate scandal.
The book's narrator recalls a childhood darkened by her father's desertion of his family and by the molestation and murder of a local boy by an unknown paedophile. It is set against the deepening crisis in American politics and society. The writer and comedian David Baddiel described the novel as "a beautifully lyrical - and deeply disturbing - rites-of-passage novel written ... from the point of view of a young girl growing up at that stage of the early Seventies when the idyll of American family life started to come apart".
The reader never learns who killed the boy, and for the narrator, the most enduring "crime" remains her father's abandonment of home and family. Baddiel said: "Essentially, this book is about judgement: about what is adjudged to be a crime, who is judged to be a criminal, and what the consequences of those judgements are, both personally and on a larger, social scale."
The novel provoked comparisons with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, while its atmosphere of uneasy affluence and its connections between family and social breakdown in the shadow of Watergate resemble the Rick Moody novel and Ang Lee film The Ice Storm.
Born in 1961, Suzanne Berne was brought up in Washington and studied at Wesleyan University. Later she attended the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa - a programme with a strong reputation for nurturing future literary stars. She now lives with her family near Boston, teaching at Harvard University's extra-mural department and writing for The New York Times.
In the four years of its existence the Orange Prize - funded by an anonymous benefactor and the Orange telecommunications group - has only once gone to a British author, Helen Dunmore.
Its previous two winners have both lived in Canada: Anne Michaels, and the Illinois-born Carol Shields.
This spring, Professor Lola Young of Middlesex University, who chaired the 1999 panel, allegedly criticised British women novelists for their "piddling" subject-matter. She later claimed to have been misquoted, but her reported remarks unleashed a torrent of debate about the relative scope and quality of US and British fiction.
Julia Blackburn's The Leper's Companion (Cape) was the only British contender on the shortlist, which also included Visible Worlds by the Canadian Marilyn Bowering (Flamingo), and three other American novels: Paradise by Toni Morrison (Chatto & Windus), The Short History of a Prince by Jane Hamilton (Doubleday) and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Faber).
Of course, for many people who grew up in the `70s, childhood was spent between parents, rather than with them. If parents didn't actually divorce, they certainly thought about it, often out loud, and sometimes requested their children's advice. I've heard horror stories about Christmases spent in airports, scenes at high school graduations, photo albums with one parent or the other scissored out. I've heard so many of these stories that they're no longer remarkable - in fact, they have stopped being stories at all and have turned into cliches, and the more predictable the worse they are: the father remarries a witch who dislikes his children and turns him against them; the mother remarries a brute who likes her daughters too much. But any cliche has a fact for a heart, and the fact is that marriages, like political alliances, broke up all over this country in the 1970s, which in the latter case at least had never happened before.
The cause of my own parents' divorce was predictable enough. My father began seeing another woman. What spins their story in a slightly different direction is that the other woman happened to be my mother's younger sister, her favourite sister, Ada.
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