Costa book of the year: Helen Dunmore wins for Inside the Wave

Poet is only second posthumous winner in the literary prize’s 46-year history

Poet Helen Dunmore, who died in June 2017 aged 64, has won the Costa book of the year award.   Photograph:  Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

Poet Helen Dunmore, who died in June 2017 aged 64, has won the Costa book of the year award. Photograph: Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images


The poet and author Helen Dunmore died in June 2017 but her words live on, with her final poetry collection, Inside the Wave, winning the Costa book of the year.

Expressly rewarding enjoyability, the Costa book awards are open only to writers in the UK and Ireland. There are five categories – novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s book – with the winner of each then vying for the overall £30,000 book of the year prize.

Dunmore, who died in June 2017 aged 64, is only the second posthumous winner in the prize’s 46-year history, after her fellow poet Ted Hughes won for Birthday Letters in 1998, and only the eighth poetry collection to take the top gong.

Inside the Wave considers her terminal cancer diagnosis and impending death. As it was printed before her death, the collection was updated after to include the poem Hold out your arms, written 10 days before she died. In it she imagines death as a mother:

“You push back my hair / – Which could do with a comb / But never mind – / You murmur / ‘We’re nearly there.’” When it was shortlisted earlier in the month, the Costa book award judges deemed Inside the Wave “a final, great achievement”.

On Tuesday night, the chair of the judges, Wendy Holden, called Inside the Wave “a modern classic” and praised it for its “very strong message”.

“Even though it was written while she was dying, it was very life affirming. Even people who didn’t normally read poetry thought it was a fantastic collection. It is incredibly moving, and by an author at the top of her game,” she said.

“Some of the poems are written from her hospital bed, but even those are very uplifting. They don’t need to be upbeat and jolly. Most of them have a lot to say about how we live, who she was, who we are ... they speak to all of us. It is impossible to read it and not get something from it. It is great to give a collection of poetry this great prize.”

Ms Holden said the decision to award Dunmore the prize was “close”, but not unanimous. “Everyone was happy. No one was storming out, saying ‘over my dead body, this is a disaster,’” she said, of the 90-minute judging meeting.

Dunmore’s win will hopefully help place poetry back in the public eye, “particularly as poetry is at a very interesting place at the moment, as it is very hotly debated what poetry is, now, whether it is slam poetry or, in inverted commas, highbrow,” she said, referring to a recent fallout over an essay in poetry journal’s PN Review that criticised the work of “young, female poets”.

“I think Dunmore’s collection is somewhere in the middle and really focuses the debate on something between two poles but is absolutely wonderful. Hopefully it will repopularise the genre.”

Earlier in the month, Dunmore’s son Patrick Charnley told the Guardian that the family was thrilled by her winning the poetry category, and added: “I know she would be, too.”

“Poetry was at the heart of all of Mum’s work, so we’re delighted,” he said. “Inside the Wave deals extremely bravely and frankly with death. In the 11 months we knew my mother was going to die, she shared a number of these poems with us, so it is very personal to us. What is shown by this fantastic win is how people who didn’t know her have also connected to it.”

For fans of Dunmore, the good news doesn’t stop with her win: a new collection of unpublished short stories, titled Girl, Balancing, will be published in June. “She said we may wish to publish a collection of short stories and pointed me to some she had not published,” Charnley said. “People responded time and time again to her work, and I think they were sad to think they wouldn’t get any more. So we’re very pleased to be able to share this with people.”

The author of 12 novels and 10 poetry collections, Dunmore saw off Reservoir 13, the Man Booker-longlisted novel by Jon McGregor; In the Days of Rain by author and academic Rebecca Stott, a memoir about her life in a Christian fundamentalist separatist cult; Katherine Rundell’s children’s book The Explorer; and Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

After winning the first novel category, the Scottish author was the consistent favourite to win, with the book, about a survivor of a childhood trauma, set to be adapted for film by actor Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine.

Ms Holden was joined in the judging by authors and category judges Moniza Alvi, Simon Garfield, Freya North, Sophie Raworth and Piers Torday, as well as British Vogue contributing editor Laura Bailey, author and presenter Fern Britton and actor Art Malik.

Since the book of the year title was introduced to the Costa book awards in 1985, it has been won 12 times by a novel, five times by a first novel, six times by a biography, seven times by a collection of poetry and twice by a children’s book. Last year’s winner, Irish writer Sebastian Barry with his book Days Without End, was the first novelist ever to win the overall book of the year title twice.

Each of the shortlisted authors wins £5,000. The awards are open only to authors living in the UK and Ireland. This year, 620 entries were whittled down to the five, four-book shortlists. – Guardian service