Michael Frank’s “dazzlingly vivid” family memoir The Mighty Franks (4th Estate) has won the £4,000 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize.
The author’s portrait of life with his eccentric LA family was chosen from a shortlist which also included The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Viargo), The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others by Mya Guarnieri Jaradat (Pluto Press,) Small Pieces: A Book of Lamentations by Joanne Limburg (Atlantic), Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem by George Prochnik (Granta) and The Holocaust by Laurence Rees (Penguin).
The winner was announced at the JW3 centre in Finchley, following a discussion evening in which the judging panel explored the significance of a specifically Jewish prize including the "joys, challenges and considerations" of judging it. The BBC’s s head of editorial partnerships and special projects, Emily Kasriel, chaired the event.
Now in its 41st year, the prize, worth £4,000 and run in association with London-based Jewish community centre JW3, is awarded to the best book, fiction or non-fiction, to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader.
This year’s judging panel comprised TLS fiction and politics editor Toby Lichtig, journalist, broadcaster and Booker Prize Foundation trustee Bidisha, author and critic Amanda Craig and London School of Jewish Studies Teaching Fellow Maureen Kendler.
Lichtig said: “Michael Frank's memoir is a dazzlingly vivid portrait of an eccentric Los Angeles family. Frank’s paternal aunt and maternal uncle were married; his grandmothers shared a flat. The whole clan lived within minutes of one another. Presiding over this claustrophobic set up was the domineering presence of the author’s aunt: a successful and vivacious Hollywood screenwriter who demanded total devotion and availability from those on whom she showered her affections.”
Lichtig described the memoir as “beautifully written, perfectly paced, uncomfortable, tender and surprising”.
He said: “Although it wears its Jewishness lightly, the background culture pulses unmistakably throughout: in the pull of the old world of Mitteleuropa, in the growing pains of American assimilation, in the vexed and complex domestic dynamics at its heart. This is both a book about a very specific Jewish family and in some sense about all families. As such it should be read, reread and enjoyed by everyone.”
Frank paid tribute to the other “distinguished books” on the shortlist.
He said: “The fact that the memoir has been read for its implicit, rather than explicit, depiction of Jewish identity seems to affirm my own feeling that there are as many ways to convey Jewishness as there are Jews. Mine is a very personal portrait of a very particular family, one I set out to draw with as much candour and clarity as I could command. Jewishness was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, both in the lived experience and the summoning of it from memory.”
The award is the only UK literary prize of its kind and attracts nominations from all over the globe. Previous winners include Amos Oz, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, Otto Dov Kulka and David Grossman.
Last year there were two prize winners: Sands won for East West Street: On the Origins of Crimes Against Humanity (W&N) with Israeli writer Gundar-Goshen recognised for her novel Waking Lions (Pushkin Press), translated by Sondra Silverston.