Helen Dunmore's 'life affirming' poetry wins the Costa

Helen Dunmore's 'life affirming' poetry wins the Costa

The late Helen Dunmore has been awarded the Costa Book of the Year award posthumously for her "life affirming" tenth and final collection, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe Books), which was written while she was dying from cancer. The last poetry book to have won the prize was Jo Shapcott's collection Of Mutability in 2010.  

Chair of the judges Wendy Holden described Dunmore's collection, which includes poetry she wrote just days before her death, as "incredibly moving" and "life affirming". Dunmore, who was also a novelist and writer of short stories and children’s books, died from cancer in June of last year at the age of 64 and the poems in her collection focus largely on mortality and "the borderline between the living and the dead".

The decision to crown Dunmore as the winner was arrived at after 90 minutes' deliberation from the judges, with the result announced at an awards ceremony in central London on Tuesday evening (30th January), where Dunmore's children were present to collect the award on her behalf.  

Patrick Charnley, Dunmore’s son, said the family was “completely blown away” with the win. “Poetry was in mum’s soul,” he said. “This collection came at a time of her death and for us it’s so personal and so wonderful. We hope it will touch a lot of people who face this thing we all do.”

Holden, indicating the judges' decision had not been unanimous, said it had been "very close" but Dunmore was "a choice we were all happy with". She praised the writer as "an author on the top of her game" and particularly saluted her "powerful message" behind her collection and its "wide appeal". 

“The judges all felt it was a modern classic, it was a collection of poems with a very strong message, and even though they were written by the author that was dying they were very life affirming and they would appeal - which is Costa’s ideal - to a wide range of people, even people who didn’t usually read poetry," Holden said. “It’s a fantastic collection, incredibly moving, incredibly strong, by an author right at the top of her game. It was a very close decision but one everybody was ultimately very happy with.”

Asked whether it was difficult to balance honouring the Costa’s aim of rewarding “enjoyability” while acknowledging the tone of the subject matter, Holden added: “Some of the poems are written from a hospital bed but even those are very uplifting. The final poem in the collection is very moving, and that’s fine; they don’t all have to be about being jolly. Most of them have a lot to say about how you live, who we are, who she was, how she saw the world and they speak to all of us ... it’s impossible to read it and not get something from it.”

Dunmore's editor, Neil Astley, called the win "a wonderful thing for Helen’s family, to have this affirmation and celebration of her work after the immense sadness of losing her last year". 

He told The Bookseller further that, although "a bittersweet moment" for him and his team at Bloodaxe, Dunmore herself "would have been delighted".

"We all said that Helen would have been delighted to receive this recognition, especially for her poetry when she was best-known for her fiction - but was a brilliant storyteller in all her writing," said Astley. "I think the fact that such a varied panel of judges chose to pick a poetry book above other excellent books in other genres shows the breadth of the book’s appeal. And for me and Bloodaxe this was a bittersweet moment."

He added: "We are looking forward very much to having more and more readers discover her poetry through Inside the Wave."

The eighth collection of poetry to have won the Book of the Year accolade since it was introduced in 1985, Dunmore's poems overcame competition from the winners of four other Costa award categories (first novel, novel, biography and children’s) to win. Gail Honeyman's debut was nominated having won the first novel category for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (HarperCollins). Also in contention for the overall Book of the Year prize was Jon McGregor in the Novel category with his fourth work, Reservoir 13 (4th Estate), historian and author Rebecca Stott in the Biography category for In The Days of Rain (4th Estate), while Katherine Rundell’s adventure story set in the Amazon rainforest, The Explorer (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) was competing after triumphing in the children’s category. Three of the five category winners vying for the Book of the Year prize, including Honeyman, were from HarperCollins' stables.

Inside the Wave has sold 7,443 copies to date through Nielsen BookScan, while Dunmore's total sales are close to one million at 993,840 copies sold for £7.06m. Its win follows record-breaking annual sales of poetry in recent years; the poetry category hit a record TCM high last year, for the third year running, and surpassed £10m for the first time at £11.2m, up 13.3% year on year. 

Dunmore's final novel Birdcage Walk (Penguin) is shortlisted for the British Book Awards' Fiction Book of the Year.

Last year the prize was won by Sebastian Barry, making him the first novelist to have won the prize twice.