Whitbread winners
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Date: 30 January, 2003

Click on the book cover above to purchase it and raise money for Christian Aid projects. Image: Jonathan Cape


'Without the snobbery of the Booker prize, the Whitbread is one of the few events in the literary world in which children’s books and poetry are given
equal merit and prestige.'

Charlotte Haines Lyon reviews the winners of the Whitbread Book Awards 2003 announced earlier this week

Unsurprisingly, Mark Haddon won this year’s Whitbread Book of the Year, having already won the Whitbread Novel Award.

The author of the tale, narrated from the point of view of Christopher who has Aspergers Syndrome, has long been the favourite.

Without the snobbery of the Booker prize, the Whitbread is one of the few events in the literary world in which children’s books and poetry are given equal merit and prestige.

This year’s shortlist has been one of the most celebrated ever so surefish.co.uk thought is was only fair to give you a run down of the winners. To buy one or more of the books, click on its title or cover, and raise money for Christian Aid projects.

Overall winner and winner of Whitbread Novel Award
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
By Mark Haddon, published by Jonathan Cape, £10.99, 272 pages

Christopher, is 15 and has discovered his neighbour’s dog Wellington, has suffered death by garden fork. As he is stroking the still warm mutt, wondering who the culprit is, he is arrested on suspicion of doggy assassination. Mayhem ensues as he hits the arresting officer, as the lad can’t bear being touched due to his Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism.

Mark Haddon’s prize winning tale, follows the antics of Christopher as he sets out to solve the murder, as well as write a book about the
investigation. It a decent “whodunnit” infused with the complexity of
family life but most importantly we are treated to the hero’s thought
patterns as he explains how Aspergers affects his life, often highlighting how ridiculous “normal” people are.

At one point, Christopher describes the difficulty of following his dad’s
command to stop playing detective and to “stay out of other people’s
business”; “I don’t know what Father means by “other people’s business” because I do lots of things with other people, at school and in the shop and on the bus, and his job is going into other people’s houses and fixing their boilers and their heating. And all of these things are other people’s business.”

Haddon inhabits the world of a teenager with Aspergers with the due care and humour it deserves. It is overwhelmingly apparent that just because somebody struggles with emotions and the abstract does not mean that they are stupid; Christopher is taking his maths 'A' Level, and frequently explains complex theorems and applies maths to his enquiry.

It is a continual struggle for him to pick up the nuances of the everyday, especially with regard to his father’s grief over the loss of his wife. In a wonderful illustration of this problem, Christopher writes about his teacher drawing circles with faces and explanations of which are angry, sad, happy etc. This useful tactic is problematic however, as people don’t appreciate him comparing their faces to the piece of paper.

Somehow by omitting emotion from Christopher’s prose, Haddon has proved the axiom “less is more” by enabling readers to fill the gaps with pathos, raw emotion and overwhelming dignity.

By creating such a convincing inner world, Haddon has superseded the traditional crime story, by investigating the mysteries of not only the human mind, but of love which whilst tangible cannot always be vocalised.

First Novel Award
Vernon God Little
By DBC Pierre, Faber and Faber, £10.99, 288 pages

A sharp brash satire set in an American gun town in Texas. After a high school massacre, Vernon the anti-hero is wrongfully arrested and has to try and prove his innocence in a climate of celebrity wannabes and betrayal.
See the full surefish.co.uk review

Whitbread Biography Award
Orwell the Life
By DJ Taylor, Chatto and Windus, £20, 484 pages

A slightly odd and beguiling biography of the creator of the 20th Century’s most famous dystopia, 1984. It is obvious that Taylor has a genuine obsession with his subject and a passion to find out who the real George Orwell was. However, such a quest is problematic from the beginning due to the enigmatic nature of the great author, a.k.a. Eric Blair

Considering the genre of the book, we learn remarkably little about the subject, although this is sweet irony considering Orwell had banned any such biographies being written about himself. Nevertheless, interest is sustained by Taylor’s depiction of the world of the literary elite in the 30s and 40s, alongside a fascinating insight into the Spanish war of the 1930s.

Orwell signed up to the Republican militia, in a quest to overthrow Franco, was shot though the throat in the trenches and had his diaries and other such personal effects confiscated on arrest for treason, thus destroying vital material for potential biographers.

An ardent socialist, Orwell was embarrassed about his middle-class
background, although he was still deemed a charity boy whilst studying at Eton. He struggled to reconcile his life with his politics and his autobiographical writings were often embellished horror stories about life that was not as fraught with mishaps as he might have desired.

Whilst an absorbing read, I can’t help feel that I could learn more about Orwell by rereading some of his works.

Whitbread Poetry Award
Landing Light
By Don Paterson, Faber, £12.99, 112 pages

If like me you are intimidated by contemporary poetry, then don’t panic. Don Paterson’s fourth collection of poems is refreshingly accessible, whilst harbouring a beauty, depth and soul. Landing Light explores some of our innermost feelings, whether despair or wonder that we face in both the everyday and extraordinary.

My Love, a devastating meditation on the role of love, is counterbalanced by the stunning simplicity and awe of a father kissing his new born son in “Waking Russell.” Then there’s the playful fairytale of an angel, who might just enchant even the least poetically minded reader.

Some poems are slightly daunting with Paterson’s effective use of his
Scottish dialect, but he does at least give the translation at the bottom of the page. Mixing a variety of voices, rhythms and subjects, Paterson has created a collection teeming with spirituality and verve, casting a light through some of the darkest areas of life.

If you are going to buy one poetry book this year, you could do a lot worse than purchase this little award winner.

Whitbread Children’s Book Award
The Fire-eaters
By David Almond, Hodder Children’s Books, £10.99, 224 pages

It is the autumn of 1962, and the Tyneside children and their parents are sitting nervously on the precipice of he Cuban Missile Crisis. Will life continue? Can anything be done to prevent the Americans and Soviets destroying the world? Possibly not, but this is a time where boundaries are broken, whether school discipline, class or religion, and everyday people are questioning their role in the world.

Not least young Bobby Burns who much to his parents pride and delight, is starting grammar school. As a working class kid, he is suspect to the Catholic middle-class teachers as well as to his friend Joseph who fears the friendship will be left behind for more high faluting mates.

His dad is seriously ill, his new “posh” friend is encouraging him to fight the violence at school and the seemingly violent, gruff Fire-eater and escapologist, McNulty has taken a shine to him. But this is all over shadowed by the fear of a nuclear bomb landing any second and feeling of helplessness.

Bobby’s mother is a Catholic and he has a light from Lourdes in his room depicting the Virgin Mary. He is continually fascinated by whether God exists, what this means and whether there is any point in prayer. Deciding that if his dad is to survive then he must sacrifice himself, Bobby’s life starts to take on new meaning and he starts to challenge the status quo with moving consequences.

Despite being set in the past, - in a time that many of the intended readers would consider to be prehistoric, this book is ultimately a contemporary book. In the last year we have seen children frightened of the war on Iraq and angry at the actions of those in power, being patronised and accused of protesting with ignorance. Almond, without any trace of worthiness as proved to be a rare adult ally for thinking youngsters.