Ruth Gilligan has won the £10,000 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize for The Butchers (Atlantic), a literary thriller set in the Irish Borderlands during the 1996 BSE crisis.
She was picked as the winner from a six-strong shortlist on 11th May, with a video of the announcement shared across the RSL's social media channels. Offering £10,000 to the winner, the annual prize is presented for an outstanding work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that best evokes the spirit of a place.
Gilligan is an Irish novelist and journalist who lectures at the University of Birmingham. The author of four novels, she also writes and reviews for the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, TLS and the Guardian.
She said: "I am just elated – and still totally shocked – to have won the 2021 RSL Ondaatje Prize. I am a sucker for books with a strong sense of place, so I have long been a huge fan of the prize, but after a year of isolation and confinement, it feels more pertinent than ever to be celebrating the transportive power of reading. There were some absolute crackers on the shortlist, so I am truly honoured that the judges chose The Butchers. A million thanks — this really means an awful lot."
The judging panel featured Lola Young, Helen Mort and Adam Rutherford. Young, who chaired the judges, said: “Our winning title is about a moment in time, in a particular place. It’s been described in many different terms: literary thriller, coming of age story, historical fiction, an account of superstition and the supernatural, but it doesn’t matter how it’s categorised—it’s a page-turning, roller-coaster of a read. The humour works—we need relief from repressed emotional lives, and the slaughter of cows—and it lures us into recalling the recent past at a moment when ‘crisis’ was constantly on the lips of politicians and pundits alike. Just like today.”
Mort added: “Ruth Gilligan's novel is utterly compelling, combining a complex and subtle narrative with spare, poetic style. The characters are sympathetic, the conflicts they experience loom large. The chapters are full of condensed, original expressions that delight and surprise (sometimes wrong-foot) the reader, making every page captivating. But the bigger picture demands our attention too: folklore meets the pressures of modern capitalism in the Irish BSE crisis. Throughout, we experience Ireland at a turning point, a time of rapid change and we are swept along with it. And throughout, landscape lives and breathes. Ruth Gilligan is a writer to truly admire and this is a deft, challenging, ambitious novel.”
Gilligan saw off competition from a shortlist featuring Louise Hare's This Lovely City (HQ) Adam Mars-Jones' Box Hill (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Mingya Powles' Magnolia, 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press), James Rebanks' novel English Pastoral (Allen Lane) and Francesca Wade's debut Square Haunting (Faber & Faber).
Previous recipients of the prize have included Roger Robinson, Aida Edemariam, Pascale Petit, Francis Spufford, Alan Johnson, Edmund de Waal, Hisham Matar and Louisa Waugh.