LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Poet Jo Shapcott was the surprise winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award on Tuesday for her collection “Of Mutability,” partly influenced by her battle against breast cancer.
It was the second time in two years that a poetry book was chosen from the five category winners already announced — novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s book. Last year Christopher Reid’s “A Scattering” scooped the prize.
Chair of the judges and broadcaster Andrew Neil said that the nine-member panel narrowed its choice to two works before making its final decision — “Of Mutability” and Maggie O’Farrell’s novel “The Hand That First Held Mine.”
Pre-awards favorite “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal’s biography about his wealthy Jewish forebears, was overlooked.
“There was quite a lot of robust argument over choosing a poetry book over the novel, and given Costa’s remit to encourage the reading of literature, there were some strong voices expressed that that would be better done by choosing the O’Farrell novel,” Neil told reporters.
“The quality of the poetry was so accessible and the subject matter so relevant — the triumph of the human spirit — that if any poetry book could capture the imagination in 2011 Britain it would be this one.”
Asked about the overall quality of books read by the judges this year, Neil replied: “I don’t think anybody thought it was a standout year, but I think everybody felt that the general level was high.”
Londoner Shapcott, 57, has won several poetry prizes since publishing her first book in 1988 including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and Forward Poetry Prize.
She is professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London and is president of the Poetry Society.
Neil was asked whether the publishing industry would have preferred a novel to win the award, given that they tend to sell better than poetry.
“The first thing to remind everybody is that there are five winners and any respectable bookshop you go into today, you’ll see all five there and they’re all selling incredibly well.”
“Of Mutability” is about more than her illness.
“Cancer is not mentioned — never dignified with a name,” wrote Kate Kellaway in a review in the Observer newspaper.
“It is characteristic of Shapcott to avoid the banality of straight autobiography. Instead, her illness exists as an anarchic rabble of cells in the body of her texts.”
The other two shortlisted works were Jason Wallace’s children’s book “Out Of Shadows” and Kishwar Desai’s debut novel “Witness The Night.”
The five authors received 5,000 pounds each with Shapcott winning another 30,000 pounds.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White