Lucy Ellmann has won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction with her epic stream of consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar), while George Szirtes has taken the biography award for The Photographer at Sixteen (MacLehose).
Ellmann's book, which published last July has already picked up the Goldsmiths Prize and was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize, was named the fiction winner by broadcaster Sally Magnusson at the virtual Edinburgh International Festival on 21st August
The book took the author seven years to write and is made up of the inner thoughts of a middle-aged housewife from Ohio. Fiction judge Dr Ben Bateman said it was "the novel of our maddening moment”.
The author follows in the footsteps of her father, Richard Ellmann, who also won a James Tait Black Prize back in 1982 for his James Joyce biography.
Ellmann said: "Amid the daily assaults on our lives and intelligence, it is really cheering to receive this prize. My father won the James Tait Black in 1982, so it feels like quite an Oedipal coup for me to get one! And I liked the international flavour of the shortlist. English literature exists and thrives way beyond the boundaries of England. If it didn’t, there’d be little hope for it.”
Her novel was picked from a shortlist featuring Travellers by Helon Habila (Hamish Hamilton), Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall (Faber), and Girl by Edna O’Brien (Faber).
Poet George Szirtes meanwhile triumphed in the biography category for The Photographer at Sixteen: the Death and Life of a Fighter. The book tells the story of his mother Magda, who committed suicide in 1975.
Biography judge Dr Simon Cooke said: “George Szirtes’ reverse chronological portrait of the woman who was his mother is a piercingly beautiful memoir-as-prose-poem, as generous as it is scrupulous in its searching meditation on a death and life, on memory and history, and on how we imagine the lives of those we love.”
The author said: “I am delighted, grateful and astonished to be awarded the James Tait Black Prize, especially given such a marvellous shortlist. I am a poet and the book is written much as a poet would write it, not so much a straight story as a set of mysteries in reverse time order, starting from my mother’s suicide in 1975, through concentration camps and refugee status, ending with a set of studio photographs of her early childhood in Transylvania. She died before she saw any of my books in print. The Photographer at Sixteen is an attempt to bring her to life.”
Szirtes' book had been shortlisted alongside What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché (Allen Lane), Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson (Picador), and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman (Serpent's Tail).
The £10,000 prizes are awarded each year by the University of Edinburgh. Each year two academic judges rely on the help of postgraduate student readers to critically assess the entries.