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Commonwealth Writers Prize - Regional Winners

Commonwealth Writers Prize - Regional Winners Announced

Down to a two horse race for judges selecting Best Book for SE Asia and South Pacific region in sought-after Commonwealth Writers Prize.

An international judging panel, meeting in New Zealand, has awarded the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book Award, SE Asia and South Pacific region to The Hamilton Case by Australian author, Michelle de Kretser (published by Knopf Australia). The Best First Book Award was awarded to Somewhere, Home by Nada Awar Jarrar (published by William Heinemann, UK), also from Australia. Each wins £1,000.

The SE Asia and South Pacific Panel of the Commonwealth Writers Prize considered fiction written in English from Australia, Brunei, Darussalam, Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Malaysia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

The Hamilton Case and Somewhere, Home are now carried forward to the final stage of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, which will be decided in Melbourne, Australia in May 2004. They join books in each category, selected by the three other international juries, covering Africa; Caribbean and Canada, and Eurasia. £10,000 will then be awarded to the Overall Best Book, and £3,000 to the Best First Book.

>From the shortlist announced earlier this year it came down to a "two horse race" between The Hamilton Case and The Scornful Moon by New Zealander, Maurice Gee (published by Penguin Books NZ). The judges had great difficulty separating Gee's wry and elegant work from de Kretser's stylish and beautifully written novel. Interestingly both stories are set in the 1930's, one in New Zealand and the other in Ceylon, both are almost social histories, and in a way both are crime novels. Certainly both are truly exceptional works.

But in the end there can be only one winner and the judges finally chose The Hamilton Case with its exploration and questioning of the legacies of colonialism and the author's hugely skilled handling of multiple narrative voices. With her second novel de Kretser has produced a remarkable historical novel, a work which is witty and sad, lush and bleak and filled with skilfully drawn, deeply flawed characters.

The promise shown by de Kretser with her first novel, The Rose Grower, has been confirmed with her stunning second book and the judges believe she will go on to become one of Australia's leading contemporary writers with her distinctive and elegant style.

The finalists in the Best Book award for the region also included Sky Dancer by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin Books NZ), My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber, UK) and Homecoming by Adib Kahn (Flamingo, Australia).

In the Best First Book category Jarrar's exquisite debut novel was a clear winner with its three thematically linked stories of modern Lebanese women living in the shadow of war, displacement and exile. They are almost three novellas but are linked very cleverly and the whole is a triumph.

The author has a Lebanese father, an Australian mother, and now lives in Lebanon although has previously lived in Australia, the USA and the UK. Somewhere, Home is a most moving story that employs prose of exquisite precision and grace.

The judges also wished to pay tribute to Gregory David Robert's huge novel, Shantaram (published by Scribe Publications, Australia). Running to over 900 pages, it is based on the life of the author who was once Australia's most wanted man. In July 1980 he escaped from maximum-security prison in broad daylight. For most of the next 10 years, after an interlude in New Zealand, he lived in Bombay and this is where much of the novel is set. It is a huge book in every sense, and although perhaps a hundred pages or so too long, it is an arresting story, full of pathos and humour and an exceptional achievement by a first-time writer.

Another title that also impressed the judges and made the final three in the Best First Book category was A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (Viking Books, UK).

Previous winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize include Janet Frame, Peter Carey and David Malouf.

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