LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. author Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize for Fiction on Wednesday for "The Lacuna," chosen from a shortlist of books by six female writers that included Booker Prize winner "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel.
Daisy Goodwin, chair of the judges, praised The Lacuna's "breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy.
"It wasn't a unanimous decision in the sense that we all said this was the winner, but I think it was fashionably consensual in that we all listened to each others' point of view," she told Reuters.
"We decided to go for the book which aroused the most passion in the most people rather than settle for everyone's second choice."
The Independent newspaper's reviewer said The Lacuna was "the first book in a long time that made me swap my bike for public transport, just so I could keep reading."
The story centers around Harrison Shepherd, who follows his mother from household to household as she chases rich Mexican men and who comes into contact with real historical figures like the artist Frida Kahlo and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
The narrative crosses between Mexico and the United States and comes to the reader in the form of memoirs, letters and press cuttings kept by Shepherd's stenographer despite his wish that they be burned.
"Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach -- the lacuna -- between truth and public presumption," the U.S. publisher's precis reads.
Kingsolver was one of three U.S. authors nominated for the annual prize, which comes with a check for 30,000 pounds ($44,000).
The other two were Attica Locke ("Black Water Rising") and Lorrie Moore ("A Gate at the Stairs"), who were joined by Britons Mantel and Rosie Alison ("The Very Thought of You") as well as Monique Roffey, of British and Trinidadian descent, with "The White Woman on the Green Bicycle."
The prize, in its 15th year, honors the best novel of the year written in English by a woman. Previous winners include Marilynne Robinson for "Home" (2009), Rose Tremain for "The Road Home" (2008) and Zadie Smith for "On Beauty" (2006).
The Orange Prize has been criticized for honoring only women, but many figures in the publishing world defend the idea.
"It is widely recognized that women are far more willing to read books by both sexes than men, leaving too many talented female authors under-appreciated," said Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles bookshop, commenting on the prize.
"The Orange Prize really does help address the likelihood that there are quite a number of female writers, especially in Britain, who would be considered amongst the first rank of contemporary authors if they were men."
Goodwin said the main aim of any literary award was to help sell books, and that Alison's novel, which had hardly any media coverage before the shortlist was announced, "has now sold around 50,000 copies, and that's great."
Editing by Steve Addison