Home, only the third novel Robinson has published in 28 years, is unanimous choice of judges
Perhaps the surprise was that there was no surprise. This year's Orange prize for the best novel written by a woman was last night won by a writer regarded by some as one of the greatest of living novelists: Marilynne Robinson.
Fi Glover, the broadcaster who chaired this year's judging panel, admitted the decision had been straightforward and unanimous. Home, Robinson's beautifully crafted exploration of family relationships and redemption, was the easy winner from the six shortlisted books, she said. "All of the judges brought a couple of books to the table which they thought were definitely the contenders and Home was in all of our choices. We were in agreement."
Glover said she had now read Home three times and it got better, more deep and profound, each time. "It does that wonderful thing of describing life that you almost knew about but never managed to put your finger on."
Robinson, whose day job is teaching creative writing in Iowa City, was one of three American writers shortlisted and received her award, together with a £30,000 cheque, at a ceremony in London's Royal Festival Hall.
Home is only Robinson's third novel since her debut in 1980 with Housekeeping. That novel started slowly in terms of sales and popularity but soon became huge and it is now regarded as a modern classic. It was made into a film by Bill Forsyth and, some years later, it was in the Observer's list of the top 100 novels of all time.
Readers were desperate for more but Robinson did not return to fiction for 24 years, winning a Pulitzer prize for Gilead five years ago. In between she wrote a polemical book about the British nuclear industry and a book of essays on such unfashionable subjects as theology and Calvinism. In Home, Robinson revisits characters she wrote about in Gilead and tells the story of the return of a black sheep, Jack, to the family fold. For a lot of the novel, not much happens – but that is one of its joys.
The victory will mean a sales spike for Robinson and the result has been welcomed by bookshops. Jonathan Ruppin, of Foyles, said: "Robinson is simply one of the outstanding prose stylists of recent years; she will undoubtedly come to be seen as essential as Nabokov or Conrad. In picking this as this year's winner, the judges have made a real statement about lyrical power of fiction, beyond its basic function to tell stories."
Each of the books on the shortlist this year was very different, although Glover said this was not box-ticking but coincidence. One of the favourites had been Ellen Feldman's Scottsboro, a fictional account of a real scandal when nine black defendants were farcically tried in Alabama in 1931 for the rape of two white girls.
The other books were Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else, about the mad but brilliant inventor of AC electricity, Nikola Tesla; Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness, a first novel written about a man's descent into Alzheimer's; Deirdre Madden's Molly Fox's Birthday about a woman who never celebrates her birthday and Kamila Shamsie's Burnt Shadows – the polar opposite of Home in some ways with its epic scale across continent and time.
The strength of American writing this year once again calls into question the exclusion of US writers from the Booker prize, which allows only Commonwealth entries. Not that the Orange is immune to criticism. Some writers, including AS Byatt, have refused to have their books considered for the prize because it is a woman-only award.
Since the Orange prize was created in 1996, winners have included Carol Shields, Zadie Smith and Rose Tremain. Four years ago the Orange of Oranges prize was given to Andrea Levy for Small Island.
Glover was joined on the judging panel by the Guardian's women's editor, Kira Cochrane, the journalist and academic Sarah Churchwell, the writer Bidisha and the entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox. All of them have done little else but read, work and sleep over recent months and Glover admitted she might now take a short break from serious reading. "I should take a step back and read Heat magazine for a couple of weeks I think."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2016