Kamila Shamsie has scooped this year's £30,000 Women’s Prize for Fiction for her “extraordinarily topical” novel Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus).
The win sees Shamsie take the prize after being twice shortlisted before, in 2009 for Burnt Shadows and in 2015 for A God in Every Stone. She was the bookies' second favourite to win at odds of 3/1, triumphing over fellow Bloomsbury author and William Hill’s favourite Jesmyn Ward, who was in the running for her third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.
A modern update of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone, Home Fire is Shamsie’s seventh novel. It explores the bond between three British-Pakistani siblings - one of whom leaves for Syria with a recruiting agent for Isis. Having sold over 15,000 copies through Nielsen BookScan since publishing last August, it was saluted for its "readability" as well as the "quality of the prose”, for having “big themes” and being a book “for our times”.
Following several hours of deliberations, the decision to crown Shamsie the winner was “unanimous”, according to chair of the judges Sarah Sands, editor of BBC Radio 4’s “Today” Programme, who was joined on the panel by radio and television journalist Anita Anand, comedian and actor Katy Brand, co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party Catherine Mayer and actor Imogen Stubbs.
"In the end we chose the book which we felt spoke for our times,” said Sands on behalf of the judges. "Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend."
She told The Bookseller it had been “extremely tough” for judges to make a decision but they had all agreed on Home Fire because it was “lasting, relevant and pertinent”.
“There are no small themes here … To humanise the big political stories that we are talking about, of terrorism, and to see it from the inside – the subtlety and the nuance and the idea of people being tested, what it means to be British or what it means to be a Muslim – it felt ‘of now’ ... And she does it so well,” Sands said.
Along with Ward, Shamsie triumphed over novels by 31-year-old Imogen Hermes Gowar, Edge Hill Short Story Prize-winner Jessie Greengrass, New Yorker staff writer Elif Batuman and Indian poet, author and translator Meena Kandasamy on the "dazzling" shortlist, which respectively explored themes as varied as mermaids and courtesans in Georgian London, medicine, pregnancy and parenthood, a student's coming of age in the 1990s and domestic violence.
Shamsie said it felt surreal to have won. “It’s lovely. It’s a slightly out of body experience. It will take a while to sink in,” she said after the ceremony in London's Bedford Square Gardnes, bronze Bessie in hand.
“I’ve never minded not winning. I come in thinking I know I’ll enjoy the party either way. And I know just [being on] the shortlist does so much for the book. But of course you want to win. I’ve wondered, what would that feel like? And when it happens you can’t quite believe it. You kind of float up!”
The winning book arose out of a suggestion by Jatinder Verma, the co-founder of a theatre company called Tara, for Shamsie to adapt Antigone in a contemporary British Asian context for a play. Shamsie said at the time of the approach she had been thinking about the themes she would explore in Home Fire already - for example, citizenship laws, what it means be a British Muslim, what it means if someone in your family does a terrible thing, where your loyalties lie - and subsequently with Verma's blessing it naturally had led to a novel instead.
In particular, plotting out the story weeks after Jihadi John had come into the public consciousness, she said she had been interested in Isis propaganda offering a sense of belonging and nation building.
"I thought, what sort of person would that appeal to? I was interested in writing about someone who wasn’t going to be a fighter, who wasn’t drawn by the violence," said Shamsie.
"I thought 'I don’t want to tell yet another story of young angry Muslim man who becomes radicalised and wants to blow things up', because that story is told too much. There’s much more to tell about the guy who is young and angry but he’s not violent and yet he still gets lured into this."
Three years ago Shamsie challenged the trade to a Year of Publishing Women in 2018 to coincide with the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK. The aim was to help address gender bias affecting women writers, as exemplified, for example, in statistics showing that just under 40% of books submitted to the Man Booker Prize between 2011 and 2015 were written by women, while male authors are said to command more space than women writers in media review pages.
Asked how far the industry had come on that issue, Shamsie remarked: "The patriarchy still lives, so it [gender inequality] is everywhere. But there are conversations going on ... In the last couple years there have been more [conversations]. Things like Vida looking at review coverage, those sort of interventions are still necessary but, by virtue of happening, people do pay attention. I think a lot of stuff that goes on in terms of disparity is people not even noticing. You have to point things out."
The prize was this year supported by three sponsors - Baileys, Deloitte and NatWest - after adopting a new sponsorship model, opting for a family of sponsors from different sectors rather than a partnership with a single company.
Shortlisted authors L-R Meena Kandasamy, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Kamila Shamsie and Jesmyn Ward
Following Orange's sponsorship of the prize for 17 years (1996 to 2012) and Baileys' sponsorship for four years (2014 to 2017), Kate Mosse, novelist and co-founder of the prize, then called it a “new sustainable way of working in a changing world”.
However, during last night's ceremony, Women's Prize For Fiction board chair Jo Prior told attendees the three brands' sponsorship of the prize was "not enough" and it needed to raise more money. As a result, it is looking for patronage - specifically a commitment from donors to pledge £5,000 for three consecutive years in return for "deeper engagement with the prize".
"We have had to find a new financial model for the prize, and I"m sure it will survive and thrive into the long term. So we now have this line-up of three terrific sponsors, each of whom sees the opportunity of supporting the prize as a way to connect our mission with their own ... But I'm afraid that is not enough," Prior said. "We need to raise more money. Alongside our family of sponsors, and we would love to have more join that family, we're looking for individual patronage. So tonight we're launching a brand new scheme which we're calling the Prize Circle's Patrons.
"So if you love the Women's Prize and cares for what it stands for, please think about becoming part of our continuing story. We're looking for a small group of people who can commit to making a financial contribution in return for deeper engagement with the prize. You will have early access to all our events, copies of the shortlisted books, contact with the board and authors. For a three-year committment of £5,000, you can become a Prize Circle Patron."
Mosse further revealed the prize is launching a new young adult reading list with Natwest to "empower and inspire the next generation of readers and writers", aimed at girls 14 - 18 years old.