Madeline Miller has won the Orange Prize for Fiction for “The Song of Achilles,” a novel set during the Trojan War which casts the Homeric hero’s relationship with his friend Patroclus as a love story.
The American writer received 30,000 pounds ($46,600) and a bronze statuette called “the Bessie” at a ceremony last night at London’s Royal Festival Hall. She overcame competition from Cynthia Ozick and four other novelists vying for the U.K. literary award for women.
Joanna Trollope, the head of the judging panel, praised the novel as being “interesting, passionate, uplifting and different.”
Ten years in the writing -- as long as the siege of Troy itself -- “The Song of Achilles” 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, a debut novelist 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.
“One of the characters I most loved writing about was Odysseus,” Miller said in an interview after the ceremony. “I would love the chance to finish his story, and in particular I’ve always been so moved by the women of the Odyssey. They’re really strong characters -- very interesting.”
First awarded in 1996, the Orange Prize was founded to celebrate fiction in English by women worldwide. This year’s shortlist “should put paid to the idea that women can’t write the big stuff,” Trollope said.
The bookies ranked Miller’s novel (published by Bloomsbury in the U.K. and Ecco in the U.S.) the dark horse in the 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.
Present in Spirit
Patchett wasn’t at the ceremony, but she loaned Miller a white A-line dress with an orange swirl pattern for the event.
This will be the final year 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.”