Madeline Miller, the 8-1 outsider last night won the 2012 – and last - Orange Prize for Fiction with her debut novel The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury), becoming the fourth American in a row to take home the £30,000 cheque and the bronze "Bessie" figurine, both anonymously endowed.
Joanna Trollope, Chair of Judges, described it as "more than worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her." The newly celebrated author seemed genuinely surprised and slightly over-wrought. "I’m shaking," she admitted, as she stepped to the microphone looking for a moment as if she might cry, before revealing that she was wearing a dress loaned to her by Ann Patchett. "I’m humbled and overwhelmed, truly."
The young Boston-born, Brown-educated classicist has spent the last decade teaching Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students while working on her novel, published in the U.S. by Ecco, which has 30,000 copies in print. Julie Barer, the Manhattan-based boutique agent who plucked the novel from her slush pile and worked on it with the author for six months, has now sold it in 10 countries, with many more now assured. Bloomsbury put through a 25,000 reprint on the result – though one or two fellow publishers thought that a cautious figure. "We were going to do 50,000 had we won," Andrew Franklin of Profile told BookBrunch, speaking of Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, published by Serpent’s Tail.
As has lately become the tradition, the ceremony took place in the Clore Ballroom at London’s Southbank Centre which was packed with gently perspiring glitterati partaking of the sponsor’s lavish hospitality. For the last time, guests processed in across the orange carpet, a shade that really doesn’t flatter the skin tone (as Caroline Michel worried during LBF’s brief relocation to Docklands), many of them dressed to the nines and wearing the sort of heels that would once not have been associated with "women’s fiction".
Trollope said that she and her fellow judges - Lisa Appignanesi, Victoria Derbyshire, Natalie Haynes, Natasha Kaplinsky – had read 143 submissions and shared a clear vision of what was required of their long- and shortlists. The three-hour discussion the previous evening had not been "robust" - there had been no row - but neither was there total unanimity, though in the end discussion focused on two books, with "graceful surrenders" along the way. In a less strong year, any of the six could have won, Trollope continued, praising an award that champions excellence without snobbery, highlighting books that can be enjoyed "by both genders and readers at every age and stage of life the world over."
Earlier this month, Orange, the telecommunications company that sponsors of the award, decided to stop sponsoring the award. However, Kate Mosse, the novelist who (then a publisher with Random House) was a co-founder of the Women's Prize for Fiction and who is now its Honorary Director said there are around 10 "serious contenders", all of them attending this year's ceremony.