Bart van Es' biography The Cut Out Girl (Fig Tree) has won the £30,000 Costa Book of the Year award.
The Cut Out Girl - described as "a hidden gem" by chair of the judges Sophie Raworth - retraces the story of Lien, a young Jewish girl in Holland who was hidden from the Nazis and fostered by Bart van Es' own grandparents, who were part of the Dutch resistance.
In 2014, van Es - a professor in Renaissance Literature at Oxford - began to look into his family's wartime history and try to find out more about Lien, who had continued to live with his grandparents in the 1950s but later broke completely with the family in the 1980s after an acrimonious misunderstanding.
In December 2014 he met Lien, then 80 and living in Amsterdam, for the first time. He began to investigate the story of her separation from her birth family at the age of eight, uncovering a tale both of holocaust survival and of Dutch wartime collaboration.
Raworth described The Cut Out Girl as "a book that really surprised us all - incredibly important, very moving". Lien, she said, had been "cut out" of her family as a child, and later cut out of her foster family too, but van Es's journey to find her and her history had changed both her life, and his. (The two are now firm friends).
"It's a story that would never had been told if he hadn't searched for it," Raworth said. "It has resonance, both for the displaced people of today, and for those stories that could go untold. It's beautifully written, understated... We felt like it was a hidden gem we wanted to put a spotlight on."
All the prize judges were "very happy" with the decision to award the prize to The Cut Out Girl, she said, adding: "I've never read anything like it before."
Bart van Es accepted the prize at a ceremony in central London on Tuesday (28th January), with Lien de Jong at his side. "Without family you don't get stories," he said, quoting a line from the book. "This is a book about ultimately my love for Lien." He said he was grateful to the judges, and his publisher, "and my amazing grandparents who showed such bravery when others did not."
Fig Tree publishing director Juliet Annan told The Bookseller the publisher had reprinted "sizeably" this morning (Wednesday), saying: “I’m thrilled that Bart van Es’s extraordinary family memoir has been recognised for the important book that it is. With its themes of displacement and family stories, this agonising but uplifting account of Lien de Jong, a young Jewish girl who was hidden by Bart’s family in the Netherlands in World War II, is totally relevant now. I’m so pleased that 85 year old Lien was able to come London and accompany Bart to the Costa Awards and see him win : a surreal and emotional and warm moment for us all.” Nielsen BookScan sales for the book thus far have totalled just over 6,000 copies, 3,300 of those for the paperback edition, published earlier this month.
The Cut Out Girl won in a field that also comprised Novel Award winner Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber), First Novel Award winner The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (Raven Books), Poetry Award winner Assurances by J O Morgan (Jonathan Cape) and Children's Book Award winner The Sklyarks' War (Macmillan Children's Books). The category winners each received £5,000.
Judging the award under Raworth's chairmanship were cook and writer Prue Leith, writer and broadcaster Kate Humble, actor and writer Simon Williams, novelist Rachel Joyce, author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera, journalist and writer Anita Sethi, poet Mimi Khalvati and RTE broadcaster Rick O'Shea.
Also announced on the evening was the winner of the Costa Short Story Award, on a public vote: Caroline Ward Vine triumphed with her story "Breathing Water."
The Cut Out Girl currently has a 4.67 out of 5 star rating on Books in the Media. Read all the reviews here.