'Pure' delight for Miller as Costa triumph makes up for Booker disappointment


SMILES OF satisfaction must have greeted the announcement of the five category winners of the 2011 Costa Book awards. Particularly impressive are the decisions taken in the fiction and biography sections.

Former International Impac Dublin Literary Award winner Andrew Miller yesterday claimed the Costa fiction section with his sixth novel, Pure, an elegant narrative set in late 18th-century Paris – with some echoes of Patrick Süskind’s 1985 bestseller Perfume.

In winning Miller compensated for his surprise failure to make the Man Booker Prize longlist, never mind shortlist, by defeating the eventual victor, The Sense of an Endingby Julian Barnes.

Even more significant is the achievement of poet Matthew Hollis, who won the biography award for his subtle and powerful study Now All Roads Lead to France – The Last Years of Edward Thomas. This is a remarkable book and has been widely acknowledged as such.

Hollis brings wonderful empathy and perception to a book which not only examines the evolution of literary journalist Edward Thomas into a major poet, but also brings to life an exciting period of transition in British writing. Thomas was deeply troubled and trapped in a personal crisis when he met the poet Robert Frost, who was exasperated by the US response to his work.

The friendship encouraged Thomas to explore verse. Within two years he had produced a lifetime’s work. Initially a nature poet, Thomas’s preoccupation began to shift slightly and, though in his late 30s, he volunteered and went to fight in the first World War, which saved him before it killed him.

Hollis built on the act of literary retrieval begun by Irish critic Edna Longley in 1973 when she presented Thomas as a major poet.

Hollis has written a profound book that not only informs and moves, it inspires. Throughout Hollis sustains an unusual tone of genuine wonder that heightens the experience of engaging with an artist’s life.

Hollis held off the challenge of Claire Tomalin’s much praised Charles Dickens: A Life. Tomalin has written seven biographies including a life of Thomas Hardy and Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which won the prize in this category in 2002 when the award was sponsored by Whitbread.

The prize for a first novel went to Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, a lively story about how a brother and sister manage when their wonderful life falls apart with the departure of their father.

He leaves their mother for another woman and her humiliation is complete when she loses her job. Life changes radically with their move from the city to a harsh rural setting.

Also shortlisted for this award was the Irish writer Kevin Barry with the City of Bohane, in which a futuristic image of Ireland divided critics yet left no doubts as to Barry’s originality and flair.

British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy won the poetry award for her collection The Bees, while the prize for a book for children went to Blood Red Roadby Moira Young.

All five winners will now be considered for the Costa Book of the Year, for which Hollis seems the strongest contender.