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.