Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna beats Wolf Hall to Orange prize

American novelist's epic novel holds off Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel to take £30,000 Orange prize for fiction

The Lacuna author Barbara Kingsolver
The Orange prize winning author Barbara Kingsolver. Photograph: John McDonnell/Washington Post/Getty Images

An epic, ambitious novel that straddles the Mexican revolution and the crazed communist witch-hunts of 1950s America was tonight named winner of this year's Orange prize for fiction.

Barbara Kingsolver took the £30,000 prize for The Lacuna, her eagerly awaited first novel since 2000.

The American novelist held off heavyweight competition from Hilary Mantel, for Wolf Hall, and Lorrie Moore, for A Gate at the Stairs, to take what is the biggest literary award for women writers.

Daisy Goodwin, the TV producer who chaired this year's judges, praised The Lacuna's "breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy" and said the winner was only ever between the three books. "It was a bit like trying to choose between your three beloved children," she said.

"In the end I suppose that while a couple of us felt very passionately about The Lacuna everyone was happy for it to be named winner. They were three of the finest books I've read in a long time. It wasn't like we were scraping in any sense."

The Lacuna, made up of memoir, diaries, letters, newspaper reports and congressional transcripts, is arguably the most demanding of the six books on the shortlist. It's a doorstopping novel that needs to be read properly rather than in snatches and tackles big subjects that resonate today – not least, the media creation of, and obsession with, celebrity.

Beginning in 1929, it follows the life of Harrison Shepherd from his sensitive teenage years in Mexico to fame in 1950s America as the reclusive author of Aztec swashbucklers. In between – and central to the story – Shepherd gets work in the bohemian household of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo while they entertain house guest Leon Trotsky, for whom he becomes a scribe.

Some readers have found it heavy and daunting, but Goodwin said: "I'm a book slut, I'm not high minded and I'm happy to read anything and everything from Dan Brown to Georgette Heyer to Ian McEwan, and I loved The Lacuna."

Goodwin said she also discussed the shortlist with her book group – "a random collection of non-literary people" – and they all said "it was one of the finest books they had ever read. It's such a fascinating and beautifully constructed book. I don't want to sound wanky but the architecture of the book is fantastic."

All six shortlisted books have seen a marked sales increase and Jonathan Ruppin, of Foyles bookshop, said The Lacuna had been "by far the bestselling title on the shortlist". He added: "It's a daunting read, which fans of her hugely popular novel The Poisonwood Bible won't all take to, but it rewards patient reading. It would be good to see more British writers and more women coming up with fiction as ambitious as this."

The Kingsolver was not a unanimous choice but Goodwin said no vote had been taken. The decision was a consensus. "As a jury we argued passionately about the books and we agreed that we wanted a winner that at least some people were passionately committed to."

Goodwin said she was proud of all six books and the three other books on the list would not be selling anywhere near what they are without the Orange. In particular, the curve ball of the shortlist, Rosie Alison's old-fashioned romance The Very Thought of You, which had not even been reviewed by a national paper when it was chosen, could have slipped off the radar. Instead, Amazon, revealing different sales figures from Foyles, said it made up a fifth of the sales of all six books combined over the past month – Wolf Hall sold 53% and The Lacuna 8%.

The inclusion of a thriller was also a surprise – Attica Locke's 1980s Houston-set Black Water Rising, which interweaves black activism and corporate dirty dealing. Then there was the page-turningly enjoyable The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey, telling the story of a white couple who move to Trinidad for a new life they love and loathe in equal measure.

In a way, Mantel had the least to gain. Her novel won the Man Booker last year and is already a soaraway sensation. "There's no doubt that Wolf Hall will become a classic," said Goodwin.

This is the Orange's 15th year and there have been notably fewer voices speaking out against it. For some, it is simple discrimination to exclude men.

But Goodwin called the argument boring and said you could just as well complain the Man Booker prize excluded Americans, which it does.

She said the Kingsolver and Moore novels would sell nowhere near what they deserve to in the UK if it were not for the Orange.

Kingsolver was presented with her prize by the Duchess of Cornwall after a champagne reception at the Royal Festival Hall [wed].

Irene Sabatini won the Orange award for new writers, for The Boy Next Door. Anne Michaels won the youth panel award and Anna Lewis won the short story competition for unpublished writers.

The other judges who helped plough through the 129 submissions this year were: Rabbi Baroness Neuberger, novelist Michèle Roberts, and journalists Miranda Sawyer and Alexandra Shulman.

Goodwin attracted headlines this year when she complained about the misery and despair and lack of humour in so many of the novels written by women being published. Today she admitted the next book she read would be a Jane Austen novel.

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  • notzadie notzadie

    9 Jun 2010, 8:24PM

    Right, I've put in a request for it at my library. Given there's 182 requests ahead of me, I might get it in my hands by autumn!

    I loved the Poisonwood Bible. Haven't read her in awhile....

  • Sceptic101 Sceptic101

    9 Jun 2010, 8:59PM

    I'm interested in good writing and I really can't see that women are disadvantaged at being judged on merit. Time the Orange Prize rethought its purpose. (And yes, same applies to the Man Booker as well)

  • Mikeydoollee Mikeydoollee

    9 Jun 2010, 9:35PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • Isferin Isferin

    9 Jun 2010, 10:22PM

    Ok - Why isn't the winner available on audiobook? Wake up you publishing guys - Audible hasn't got this - but I was able to read Moore and Mantell - both brilliant, but in that order of excellence, months ago.

    Reading is no longer just a print on paper thing - please wake up you publishers.

    This will have to be very, very good to beat A Gate at the Stairs - but I hope it does.

    Are you sure, panel? Are you really sure? Cos I'm trusting you....

  • TerribleLyricist TerribleLyricist

    9 Jun 2010, 11:38PM

    Literary competitions - silliness on stilts.

    Maybe we should have a prize for Best Book Written by a Writer with Blonde Hair. Who would win the prize for Best Book by an Author Not Born on a Monday?

    It's one thing to be awarded an honour for your work; it's quite another to enter a work in a competition that excludes many of your peers.

    I'm a huge fan of Barbara Kingsolver, but I'm amazed that she allows her work to be entered in competitions like this.

  • seajay2312 seajay2312

    10 Jun 2010, 3:11AM

    I have just read Prodigal Summer; the ecological theme is fine and she writes with good intent but honestly, the actual literary quality is Mills and Boonish
    . The sexual interactions were laughable and the only cliche she seemed to miss was 'heaving bosoms'. All the characters were one-dimensional, except maybe the coyotes.
    I will avoid The Lacuna for fear of aforesaid bosoms turning up in the guise of Frieda.
    For mine she is not in the same league as Hilary Mantel.

  • Bathsheba Bathsheba

    10 Jun 2010, 4:28AM

    Thank you seajay2312! I totally agree and find it completely maddening that this book has won such a prestigious award. Doesn't anyone on the panel have any critical acumen? She is not at all in the same league w/ Hillary Mantel, not a bit. She is a popular writer of book clubby fiction, no more, no less. Everything you say above is true. Her characters are completely unbelievable to me. One-dimensional, all in service of her lofty ideals. But her biggest crime, to my mind, is the utter lack of wit in any of her works. They are earnest to the blazing nth degree.

    I even agree with her politics and can't read her. I actually tried to read The Lacuna and failed, which is about my 5th attempt on a Kingsolver novel. It is not the work of an artist, to my mind. She has big political themes that she works out via characters, but I fail to see how other readers find them appealing or believable. I've tried b/c I want to like her and her books! But I cannot get them down w/ at least a spritzing of wit.

    God, the title of this alone is enough to make you weep at the unfairness of this award going to her over Hillary Mantel! The Lacuna? Talk about pretentious.

  • Megami1 Megami1

    10 Jun 2010, 6:54AM

    While 'The Poisonwood Bible' was a magnificent book, 'The Lacuna' was badly written tosh masquerading as something deep and meaningful. Bad dialogue, stereotype characters, bloody obvious plot direction. Whereas 'Wolf Hall' is a masterpiece. Yet further proof that literary prizes are rarely a good starting place when looking for suggestions for good reading.

  • Murr Murr

    10 Jun 2010, 7:18AM

    Doesn't anyone on the panel have any critical acumen?

    it would appear not:

    Goodwin: I don't want to sound wanky, but the architecture of the book is amazing.

    Why is this 'wanky'? Why the faux anti-elitism? You don't think Kingsolver laboured long and hard over the architecture of the book? Or that it's something worth commenting on?

    Why does everything have to be so dumb?

  • BlackheathCanuck BlackheathCanuck

    10 Jun 2010, 11:10AM

    The Lacuna is a great read on so many levels. It has much to say about the McCarthyism of today in America and elsewhere, on the role of art and politics today. Or you can just read it for the sheer pleasure. A deserving win for a normally underrated writer.

  • leeangelo leeangelo

    10 Jun 2010, 11:17AM

    Don't know about the clunky use of the term 'wanky' (is that even in the dictionary?), but from the picture above, it looks like Kingsolver is a bit of a smug wanker herself. That, and the attention-grabbing title, has put me off for sure.

  • shemarch shemarch

    10 Jun 2010, 11:17AM

    The only book of the short listed is Walf Hall, which I loved, in spite of her hero being someone I detest. A friend of mine who borrows a lot of my books couldn't get on with it,; I found that strange since she usually shares my tastes. I shall look forward to reading the others, in paperback because hardbacks are usually too expensive. Perhaps when I am in England in January I will be able to find some discounted ones..

  • PietroFergusoni PietroFergusoni

    10 Jun 2010, 11:32AM

    @Bathsheba - I really have to disagree. I read the Poisonwood Bible (though no others of Kingsolver's) and you couldn't call it 'book clubby fiction', it's about the Big Themes (Africa, the West, culture, neocolonialism, religion, obsession...) and it's a minutely well observed human story against a big background. You couldn't say 'utter lack of wit' having read it, I don't think.

    I'm now reading Wolf Hall. I can't yet comment on Lacuna, but Mantel and Kingslover are both great writers.

  • zendik zendik

    10 Jun 2010, 11:43AM

    "Yet further proof that literary prizes are rarely a good starting place when looking for suggestions for good reading."

    Err... did Wolf Hall not win the Booker prize?

    Meat and poison, dear.

  • RichardLemmer RichardLemmer

    10 Jun 2010, 11:49AM

    Beginning in 1929, it follows the life of Harrison Shepherd from his sensitive teenage years in Mexico to fame in 1950s America -

    British fiction awards yet another novel scarred senseless of a contemporary setting. Has really nothing that interesting happened in the last ten (even twenty?) years that might possibly even just maybe a little bit be worth writing about?

  • onajiyane onajiyane

    10 Jun 2010, 12:07PM


    I logged in and then found that you two had said what I wanted to say.

    > Goodwin: I don't want to sound wanky, but the architecture of the book is amazing.

    I've never heard of the word "wanky". Does she mean "nerdy"? Or maybe she means "manky". Perhaps if she alienates herself from her dumbed-down environment, she loses her job as tv producer. Is she sure the architecture isn't awesome? It's all so sad.

    As for Wolf Hall, I've yet to see a more badly written novel. I hadn't a clue what was going on. Mantel used "he" the whole time and that "he" wasn't always Cromwell either. I would say Mantel's "style" was faux, pretentious and unreadable.

  • omeMan omeMan

    10 Jun 2010, 12:27PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • Chwimpy Chwimpy

    10 Jun 2010, 12:28PM

    @leeangelo - I really hope that comment was tongue in cheek.

    Only just started The Lacuna so can't comment yet. Please explain, what is wrong with the title? The Poisonwood Bible is an excellent book but I also really like her earlier novels The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, which are two parts of the same story. They are not as ambitious as The Poisonwood Bible or The Lacuna seems to be, but are emotionally satisfying and her recurring theme of human/nature connectedness is insightful. I'm not so keen on Animal Dreams though.

  • AR27 AR27

    10 Jun 2010, 12:32PM

    @leeangelo - I had the pleasure of having dinner with Barbara Kingsolver a few years ago, and I can assure you she is not a "smug wanker".

    By all means critique her books, if you've read them, but there's really no need for this sort of vacuous comment.

    A case of the pot calling the kettle.....?

  • Chwimpy Chwimpy

    10 Jun 2010, 12:34PM

    On the wanky theme, it is insulting for serious literary works to be reviewed in such a manner. It's like being judged by Amanda Holden on Britain's Got Talent (not that most of the entries deserve much better though).

  • laowailady laowailady

    10 Jun 2010, 12:53PM

    Agreed Chwimpy. Wanky is highly inappropriate. But how much worse is 'book slut'?! For the love of god, why do presumably intelligent women feel the need to express themselves like teenage boys? Do they think it makes them hip? Wrong, ladies.

    And calling yourself a slut no matter what kind of qualifier you put with it - 'book slut', 'tv slut', 'cake slut' - is wrong on more levels than I can be bothered thinking about. Desist from lad mag-esque lit crit please Guardian!

  • sammcginty sammcginty

    10 Jun 2010, 1:19PM

    The Indy is saying that critics are reacting with "respectful disappointment".

    I was recommended Wolf Hall by a couple of people who insisted it was something completely other than the conventional, weathered, tired historical indulgence it appeared to be. It was insufferable, to my mind: tortuous, insipid, mannered and containing the most galling thread of faux-bawdiness masquerading as wit. Perfect booker winner, really, all told.

    The Lacuna, on the other hand, is a pleasantly surprising win here, and deserves the recognition. I genuinely do not understand the dismissal it received at the hands of a number of critics. I much preferred it to ...Poisonwood... - it's a very, very smart piece of work, profoundly intelligent, meticulously researched and utterly consumable - I got through it in two days, whereas Mantel's juggernaut took me a solid month's trudge.

    Just goes to show how completely redundant prizes and criticism are once you get to a certain level. I expect a good number of people will disagree with me entirely.

    Nice that we get a list every now and then of books we might want to read, and if the discourse that provides that list has to have us ultimately single one out in the end in order to get a bit of media attention and justify its existence, then so be it.

  • Dimple Dimple

    10 Jun 2010, 2:23PM

    I was going to buy this book the other week but after reading some of the reviews for The Lacuna on various book blogs , a good way to get honest and straight -forward opinions, not one of them encouraged readers to read this book; words like 'chore' and 'gave up' featured heavily, i was put off.

    I might give it a go at some point, if I see it in the library, not that I trust the opinions of 'wanky' Goodwin or anything

  • Rotwatcher Rotwatcher

    10 Jun 2010, 3:15PM

    Goodwin said: "I'm a book slut, I'm not high minded and I'm happy to read anything and everything from Dan Brown to Georgette Heyer to Ian McEwan

    Ooh, look everyone, a Bluestocking.

  • singlet singlet

    10 Jun 2010, 6:57PM

    I was unimpressed by The Lacuna - some good moments around Trotsky but overwhelmingly stodgy and self-conscious. Kingsolver is a competent Trollopeian second-ranker in comparison to really insightful writers like Mantel.

  • Dylanwolf Dylanwolf

    10 Jun 2010, 7:21PM

    The Lacuna will need to be much better than the vastly over-rated Poisonwood Bible which is awful American indulgent and sentimental schmaltz, if Kingsolver, who seems an archetypal Reader's Digest-style writer, is get anywhere near as good as Hilary Mantel.

  • Bathsheba Bathsheba

    10 Jun 2010, 11:30PM

    Someone posting here used the phrase "stodgy and self-conscious" to describe Kingsolver's works. I think that captures it exactly. You see all the hard work she puts into them...boy, do you ever. The research, the ideas she wants you to know you are supposed to be considering, the fact that some character is "like this," and another character is "like that." I just didn't buy it at all and gave up after a game try. I love almost anything about Mexico or Frida Kahlo, so this was very disappointing.

    There is a lot of American fiction that falls into this category--well-meaning, but vastly over-rated b/c of the hype machine that attends bestselling authors.

    Maybe I would like Barbara K. more if she could just break stride and write a story that wasn't groaning under the weight of all the messages she wants to convey.

  • campexplorer campexplorer

    11 Jun 2010, 8:24AM

    Book awards are not objective - as the debate above about the relative merits of wolf Hall vs the Lacuna illustrate - they're not like the Olympics. So since there's really no such thing as "the best book", they're marketing tools. Which is fine, shortlisted books generally get a good sales boost. But to maximise the impact it's betterto have several awards, with different criteria so you don't always get the same books on each shortlist. A women-only award is, arguably, as good a way as any other, just as a British and commonwealth award cf the Man Booker is, or the Whitbread's multiple categories, including 1st time author, plus an overall winner.

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