First-time author Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for Fiction, receiving 30,000 pounds ($46,600) and a bronze statuette called “the Bessie” after overcoming competition from Cynthia Ozick and four other novelists in the U.K. literary award for women.
The American writer was honored at a ceremony tonight at London’s Royal Festival Hall for “The Song of Achilles,” a novel set during the Trojan War that casts the Homeric hero’s relationship with his friend Patroclus as a love story.
“This is a more than worthy winner -- original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her,” said the head of the judging panel, Joanna Trollope, in an e-mailed statement.
Ten years in the writing -- as long as the siege of Troy itself -- “The Song of Achilles” (published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. and Ecco Press in the U.S.) is narrated by Patroclus, a relatively minor character in “The Iliad” whose fate nonetheless alters the course of the Trojan War. It’s a lyrically told tale of adventure and tragedy that contrives to humanize the demigod of its title.
Miller, who teaches Latin to high-school students, is the fourth consecutive American to capture the award. Her mother began reading the Greek myths to her when she was five, and her childhood was partly spent within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose ancient Greek exhibits captivated her.
First awarded in 1996, the Orange Prize was founded to celebrate fiction in English by women worldwide. The bookies ranked Miller’s novel the dark horse in this year’s race. The favorite to win was Ozick’s “Foreign Bodies,” a complex story of Americans in 1950s Paris, based on Henry James’s “The Ambassadors.”
The other finalists were Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker Prize finalist, “Half Blood Blues” (Serpent’s Tail); “The Forgotten Waltz” (Cape) by Anne Enright; Georgina Harding’s “Painter of Silence” (Bloomsbury); and “State of Wonder” (Bloomsbury) by Ann Patchett, who won the Orange Prize in 2002.
This will be the final year that the award bears the name it has gone by since it began. Orange, a telecommunications company, announced earlier in the month that it would not be renewing its title sponsorship beyond 2012, ending one of the U.K.’s most enduring cultural partnerships.
The award will search for a new sponsor. Its purse and the bronze statuette remain safe, both having been funded since the beginning by an anonymous bequest. Until now, Orange has met all other running costs, including promotion, administration and the ceremony itself.
In a second prize granted this evening, Jennifer Cullen was named the winner of the Orange/Grazia First Chapter Competition for unpublished writers.
Previous Orange Prize recipients have included Tea Obreht for “The Tiger’s Wife,” Barbara Kingsolver for “The Lacuna” and Marilynne Robinson for “Home.”
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