Ruth Gilligan has won this year’s Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize for The Butchers, her literary thriller set along the Border during the 1996 BSE crisis.
The prestigious annual prize worth £10,000 is awarded to an outstanding work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that best evokes the spirit of a place. Gilligan said: “I am just elated – and still totally shocked – to have won. 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.”
Baroness Young of Hornsey, chair of the judges, said: “Our winning title’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.”
Adam Rutherford said: “Ruth Gilligan’s writing is almost annoyingly good. Her language bounds off the page and paints incredibly engaging characters and situations. From page one, it was glaringly obvious that The Butchers is a special book.”
Helen Mort said: “The Butchers is utterly compelling, combining a complex and subtle narrative with spare, poetic style. We experience Ireland at a turning point, a time of rapid change and we are swept along with it.”
If The Butchers’ feel for place could not have been better, the timing of the novel’s publication, late March 2020, could not have been worse.
“Not to play the tiny violin,” the 33-year-old author said, “but the book did come out at the worst possible moment, when everything was falling apart, first-world problems I know, but it’s still so nice to get some recognition.”
The Butchers is Gilligan’s fifth book but remarkably the Ondaatje prize is her first recognition since she shortlisted for best newcomer in 2006 for her debut, Forget, which she wrote as a Transition Year school project, becoming the youngest Irish writer to top the bestseller lists.
A bit of a prodigy, she also played the role of Laura Halpin in the RTÉ soap opera Fair City for four years. Her second novel, Somewhere in Between, was published while she was studying for an English degree at Cambridge University. She now lives in London and teaches creative writing at the University of Birmingham.
While Gilligan felt her fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, marked a big shift in terms of what she wanted to achieve with her work, The Butchers is a more confident work. Also, “my editor was really tough on me, he made me do a bazillion drafts until we got it right”.
Given that the author is from Blackrock, south Dublin, not Blackrock, Co Louth, her achievement in capturing the spirit of the Border counties is all the more remarkable. How did she do it?
Firstly, it took her five years to write. “I wish I knew how to research a book without doing 10 times too much. But I needed that time to bed down into the place in all sorts of ways, spending time there, meeting people, interviewing farmers, visiting farms, endless rambling walks to soak up the atmosphere.
“I really wanted to capture the spirit of the border counties, and people were really generous, telling me their stories, showing me their farms, allowing me to be this ignorant Dub asking all the questions. It was a long, pretty immersive process. ”
She also read her way under the region’s skin – the works of John McGahern, Pat McCabe, even Patrick Kavanagh – and Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien for a female, rural perspective.
“Literature as a form of research is vital, they’ve done some of the work of distilling the essence of a place.” More prosaically, she also pored over endless editions of the Anglo-Celt and listened to local radio stations and podcasts to get the accents and rhythms of speech right.
For all that, it is interesting that the book’s prologue frames the action through the lens of an outsider, a Dublin photographer.
“Despite all the research,” the author says, “I am from south Dublin, an outsider looking in, so Ronan, the photographer, is an acknowledgement of that, a doppelganger for me, making art out of a reality that is not his own.
“I did the same in Nine Folds, with a non-Jewish character thinking of marrying in. I like to write it in rather than pretend it isn’t there.”
Her work in progress, “about mothers and daughters and art”, marks a departure, literally, as it is set in Britain and is a very different work. “I seem to be a bit of a magpie, perversely making things difficult for myself.”
- The Butchers is out in paperback next month from Atlantic Books