Slavery Novel Wins Women's Fiction Prize as Judges Ignore Literary Stars ; LITERATURE Little-Known American Author's Tale of Life on a New Orleans Plantation Puts Zadie Smith and Donna Tartt in the Shade

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A NOVEL about slavery by the unfancied American author Valerie Martin was the surprise winner of the Orange prize for women's fiction yesterday.

The judges ignored the claims of the hotly tipped Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith. Instead they gave the pounds 30,000 award to Property, which views the operation of slavery on a 19th-century sugar plantation in Louisiana through the eyes of the owner's privileged and petulant wife, Manon Gaudet.

The Nobel prizewinning novelist Toni Morrison has called Martin's book "a marvel". Ahdaf Soueif, the novelist who chaired this year's judging panel, praised Property as "a novel which deals with a huge subject with originality" and which "performs the difficult task of depicting dramatic events with stylish restraint".

Ms Soueif said the choice came after a "long and impassioned debate" among the judges, who also included the model-turned-writer Sophie Dahl.

Last night Martin received the prize, which since 1996 has been endowed by an anonymous benefactor, at a ceremony in Lincoln's Inn Fields, central London.

Martin, 54, grew up in New Orleans and lives in New York State. Property, published in the UK by Abacus, is her seventh novel. She has also written two collections of short stories and, most recently, a biography of St Francis of Assisi.

Property competed on the shortlist against another novel of the Deep South, Donna Tartt's The Little Friend - the 2/1 favourite - as well as Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, Carol Shields's Unless, Shena Mackay's Heligoland and Anne Donovan's Buddha Da. As in 2001 and 2002, when the prize respectively went to the unfancied Kate Grenville and Ann Patchett, the panel confounded tipsters and pundits by thrusting a lesser-known novelist into the limelight.

Property recreates the voice and attitudes of the spoilt and confined Manon, mistress of the slave estate but still, in effect, her abusive husband's chattel. A slave rebellion brews on the failing plantation, with stormy weather matching the mood of impending doom.

Through Manon's jealousy of the slave-girl Sarah, her husband's lover and mother of two children by him, Martin compares the different kinds of powerlessness endured by white and black women in the ante-bellum South. …