Books: the Orange Prize and good, better, best

Spouse has accused me of being “demented” about the Orange prize. Couldn’t sleep after it was announced. Not because I didn’t like the book that won, The Song of Achilles by new, uber-talented author, 33 year-old Madeline Miller. No, I did like it. In fact I gave a glowing review of it in the Independent on Sunday which was quoted all over the post-prize coverage as proof of what a great book it is. But as much as I had enjoyed the book I had mixed feelings about it winning the prize.

The problem with this year’s Orange list is a problem any prize would envy: it was a very strong shortlist. Plus, two of the biggest contenders – the strongest contenders in my view – had previously won the Orange (Ann Patchett for Bel Canto) and the Booker (Anne Enright for The Gathering). Personally, I would have given the prize to Anne Enright for The Forgotten Waltz, pictured. (Spouse points out: “Yes, but no-one is asking you, are they?” Fair point.) This is a heart-stoppingly brilliant novel about fidelity, lust and self-delusion, a modern re-write of Madame Bovary for the tracker mortgage generation. It’s a book that rewrites the rules of fiction and reminds you how special reading is.

I can understand why the judges voted for The Song of Achilles. And in any case they made it known that the decision was not unanimous. Madeline Miller is a great writer and it’s a great book. There were other, more experienced writers on the list who have had their time in the sun. Why not reward a new talent? Which is great for Orange anyway, as prize committees like to look as if they’ve discovered a new voice.

But… But.. This is why I couldn’t sleep. It just wasn’t the best book on the list. And, worse, I don’t think it’s the best book Madeline Miller will write. Nor it is even her Bel Canto. Achilles is a miracle of a first novel, a stunningly original debut which is cleverly marketed towards people who know nothing about Greek mythology and think that by reading it they will feel much more clever. (And I know what I’m talking about because this is exactly how I felt when I read it.) But it’s not a Great Book. And Orange should only reward Great Books. Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz is that book. I’ll shut up now because my husband has had enough.



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