Miller Wins $47,000 Costa Prize After Judges’ ‘Fierce’ Debate

The cover jacket of "Pure," by Andrew Miller. Source: Amanda Johnson PR via Bloomberg

Andrew Miller won the Costa Book of the Year award last night for “Pure,” a novel about pre-Revolutionary France. He defeated four other authors including the bookies’ favorite, biographer Matthew Hollis, and the U.K. poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, to collect a prize of 30,000 pounds ($46,760).

Miller accepted the award during a champagne reception at London restaurant Quaglino’s, having taken the Costa Novel Award earlier this month over other finalists including Julian Barnes.

Stepping up to the podium dressed in a brown corduroy suit, Miller’s first word was “Blimey.” At a press conference afterward, the 51-year-old author complimented his competitors, adding that Duffy had helped him find a literary agent when he was in his 20s.

He has no plans for his winnings, he said: “One thing I have learned is don’t spend money you don’t have, so I haven’t given that the slightest thought.” He’ll probably spend it “on living,” perhaps splurging on a new pair of shoes, he added.

“Pure” (Sceptre) is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a provincial engineer summoned to Paris in 1785 to demolish the city’s oldest cemetery. He finds an overflowing bone yard that is spreading disease.

It’s a depository of the dead and a carrier of death, yet Les Innocents has wormed its way into the lives of those who live nearby. Baratte soon realizes that what he had thought of as an opportunity to clear the poisonous influence of the past might become the cause of his own destruction.

Imaginary Paris

Though Miller has lived in Paris, he wrote “Pure” in Somerset, England.

“It’s a Paris of the imagination,” he said of the book’s setting. “That’s how I like to work. Writing’s a kind of organized dream. We sit in our rooms on our own and dream up strange places and strange people and set them running.”

Miller is the author of five previous novels, and won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award for his first, “Ingenious Pain.” “Pure” was snubbed by the judges of last year’s Man Booker Prize, failing to make even the long list.

“It is a rich and brilliant historical novel about death, superstition,” said Geordie Greig, editor of the London Evening Standard and chairman of the judging panel, at a press conference before the ceremony. Greig also praised the book’s “extraordinary scenes of corpses and cemeteries and sex.”

Five Prizes

Whitbread Plc’s Costa coffee-shop chain grants annual awards of 5,000 pounds apiece for books in five categories -- novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s literature. Those five then compete to be Costa Book of the Year.

Previously known as the Whitbreads, the prizes seek to honor the most enjoyable books of the year by authors based in the U.K. and Ireland.

This year’s competition included the winner of the Biography Award, Hollis’s “Now All Roads Lead to France” (Faber), a dramatic portrait of the Anglo-Welsh poet Edward Thomas focusing on his friendship with Robert Frost and his fateful decision to fight in World War I.

The other finalists were “The Bees” (Picador), Duffy’s Poetry Award-winning collection of verse; nurse Christie Watson’s “Tiny Sunbirds Far Away” (Quercus), which is set in Nigeria and took the First Novel Award; and Moira Young’s “Blood Red Road” (Marion Lloyd), a tale of a young girl’s quest to find her missing brother in a futuristic dystopia, which won the Children’s Book Award.

Fierce Debate

The judges’ “fierce” 90-minute debate, which Greig said included “bitter dissent,” narrowed the contest down to “Pure” and Hollis’s biography, which was praised by Greig as being “incredibly subtle and brilliant.”

In pitting works of different genres against one another, the prize has often been said to compare apples with oranges. Greig disagreed. “It feels like you’re comparing bananas and chicken curry,” he said.

Also announced was a new competition, the Costa Short Story Award, which will run alongside the existing prizes, though the winner won’t be eligible to compete for Book of the Year.

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