Whitbread Prize Brings Surprise Winners Essay Research

Whitbread Prize Brings Surprise Winners Essay, Research Paper

Whitbread winner’s ‘ring of absolute truth’

A book on China written by a man whose only experience of the country was a one-hour stopover at Hong Kong airport is one of two surprise winners of the Whitbread awards. Sid Smith’s debut novel at the age of 52, Something Like A House, is set during China’s cultural revolution, and is praised by the judges for its “ring of absolute truth” – proving that several months in the British Library poring over Taoist tracts and accounts of peasant life can be just as good as having experienced the Maoist upheaval of the 1960s. Smith, a journalist for 17 years before the “drudgery drove me mad”, is now writing a trilogy about China – but is determined not to visit the country. “I’m keeping up the joke. No, I’m definitely not going there. It is fiction, after all. So far, no one has complained that I have got it all wrong. I still walk fearlessly through [London’s] Chinatown.” His triumph in the first book category, among the winners announced yesterday, is if anything trumped by that of DJ Patrick Neate in the best novel award, beating such heavyweights as the Booker-shortlisted Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and the favourite, Atonement by Ian McEwan, the year’s bestselling piece of high literature. Neate’s novel, Twelve Bar Blues, begins with a “knackered old whore”, Sylvia di Napoli, pouring out her life story to a pasty-faced kid called Jim Tulloh on a transatlantic flight. Its scale and daring delighted critics, who described as “an epic tale of jazz and juju, fate, family and friendship”. Neate, a 31-year-old white Londoner from Putney, takes on the voice of a gallery of black characters, including the colourful post-colonial potentate Chief Tongo from the fictional African country of Zimbawi, and a bevy of New Orleans jazz musicians and prostitutes. Although he has worked as a teacher in Zimbabwe – the partial inspiration for Zimbawi in his acclaimed first book Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko – Neate said that it would be “too cheeky by half for a white guy like me” to claim enough knowledge of the country to set it there. “I want to go back there. My friends there would kill me if they thought I had dared to base it on anywhere real. Anyway, no one wants to read a book about a middle class boy from Putney. Zimbawi is much more interesting.” Saying he was “deeply embarrassed” to beat the likes of McEwan and Helen Dunmore to the £5,000 prize, Neate confessed that the jazzy speech rhythms some of his characters use did cause him “grief” at readings. “I researched all the speech patterns very thoroughly, but it’s still a bit embarrassing getting up and trying to read them with my weird south London accent. You sound like a plum trying to do these African Americans from the turn of the century.” The poetry prize went to the inimitable Selima Hill for Bunny, a teenager’s journey through a house haunted by a remote father and a sinister lodger. She beat off Wendy Cope’s first collection for nearly a decade, If I Don’t Know. The biography prize was won by Diana Souhami for Selkirk’s Island, the story of the castaway on whom Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was based. Francis Cleverdon, of Waterstone’s the bookseller, said the list of winners was not the one it had been expecting. “The big surprise is that Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not there. But I still think it is a very good list, and will get people reading some very good books which have not got the attention they deserved.” All four winning books go on to compete for the £25,000 Whitbread Book of the Year title in a fortnight’s time, when the winner of the children’s book award will also be announced. Novel Twelve Bar Blues by Patrick Neate A genre-crossing peach of a fiction that neatly intertwines raucous tales of post-colonial Africa with lives of turn of the century American prostitutes and jazz musicians. What the judges said”A sprawling and unusual extravaganza of a novel. The ranginess of the story mirrors the arbitrariness of life, while the electrifying prose brings to life characters whose experiences span one century, several cultures and many colours. Patrick Neate sets a high standard for modern fiction.” First novel Something Like A House by Sid Smith A traumatic story of China’s cultural revolution cut with a sly debate on evolution. What the judges said “A gripping page-turner that takes the reader into another world containing both beautifully observed detail of the texture of the lives of Chinese peasants, and a range of big ideas about eugenics, biological warfare, politics and the nature of loneliness. As young Tao says in the book, ‘Every pleasure equals its rarity’. It’s a rare pleasure to read such an extraordinary first novel.” Poetry Bunny by Selima Hill When she sat down to write these poems, all set in the same strange household, Hill had a “jolly happy book” in mind. Luckily, it did not quite come out that way. What the judges said “A unique voice in British poetry, Selima Hill has taken on a near impossible subject and from it produces a work that is at once quirky, terrifying, and ultimately uplifting.” Biography Selkirk’s Island by Diana Souhami As much a history of Robinson Crusoe Island, 360 miles off the coast of Chile in the Pacific, as a biography of Alexander Selkirk, the man whose abandonment and rescue from the island three centuries ago was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. What the judges said “A book that is as hypnotic and compelling as the island that forms its real subject. A great adventure story, a great read, and a real advance for the art of biography.”


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