Former Waitress on Shortlist for Whitbread Book Awards

By John Walsh and Karl Mansfield | The Independent (London, England), November 16, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Former Waitress on Shortlist for Whitbread Book Awards


John Walsh and Karl Mansfield, The Independent (London, England)


A 12-year-old girl's awakening, the fate of Kashmir, the mental rationale of suicides and a mixed-race clairvoyant growing up in a town called Eureka are all in contention for the 2005 Whitbread Book Awards. And that's just the novels.

Elsewhere, in the biography section, a life of the Nazi propagandist Lord Haw-Haw battles it out with Henri Matisse, Richard Mabey the celebrated nature writer, and a homeless psychotic thief called Stuart.

Eclectic is the word for the Whitbread shortlists. And when it comes to the fiction contenders, controversy is never far away. Every year, the judges seem to take a perverse delight in ignoring or downplaying the front-runners in the Man Booker Prize (announced two months earlier and their deadly rival). This year, Salman Rushdie and Nick Hornby " ignored in the final round-up by the Booker judges " are in hot competition with the shortlisted Ali Smith (The Accidental) and the dark horse Christopher Wilson, who was up for the Whitbread once before, for his novel Mischief.

Booker front-runners such as Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes and (the eventual winner) John Banville are simply not in the running.

For Rachel Zadok, a contender for the first novel award, it's all a bit unreal. The 33-year-old South African was a beneficiary of the Richard & Judy show and its 'How to Get Published' slot. She was in the last five, winnowed from 46,000 entries; and though she failed to win, she was offered a contract and a pounds 20,000 advance by Pan Macmillan.

Her book, Gem Squash Tokoloshe, follows a young girl growing up during the height of apartheid unrest in South Africa, and took three years to write. 'It was a bit unreal when I found out I was on the shortlist,' she said. 'I was told I couldn't tell anyone when all I wanted to do was shout it from the rooftops.' Zadok was working as a waitress when she wrote the book, and presumably is now dreaming of the pounds 25,000 that may be hers when the overall Book of the Year is announced on 24 January.

Two of her rivals for the first novel award, Tash Aw and Diana Evans, are graduates of the East Anglia creative writing factory. Aw's novel is set in Malaysia, where he was brought up, Evans's in north London " she was acclaimed on publication as 'the new literary voice of multicultural Britain' and is this year's Monica Ali. Another contender is Peter Hobbs, a former foreign office executive, who became a writer while recovering from a long illness, with his novel A Short Day Dying.

A strong contender for the overall prize must be Hilary Spurling's ground-breaking life of Matisse, a painter much derided (and oddly under-biographised) in his own country.

The Whitbread, however, has a famous weakness for 'human interest' stories of mental or physical breakdown.

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Former Waitress on Shortlist for Whitbread Book Awards
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