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Commonwealth Writers Prize

The Secret River explores troubled relations between Australia's early settlers and Aborigines.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2006 17:41 IST
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A novel exploring the troubled relations between Australia's early white settlers and indigenous Aborigines has won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Australian writer Kate Grenville's The Secret River beat a field of eight, including On Beauty by Britain's Zadie Smith and Canadian Lisa Moore's Alligator to take the award for overall best book.

Guyana's Mark McWatt won the prize for best first book for his Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement at the ceremony in Melbourne which was attended by Prince Edward.

Grenville's novel tells the story of transported convict William Thornhill's journey to the outskirts of Sydney to find land that he can farm to support his family, despite the competing claims of the local Aborigines.

The judges said the book "returns to the foundational moment of Australian settler history to rethink the nature of settler engagement with the land.

"There is guilt, trauma, triumph, and regret, all in a narrative that remains riveting and assured," they said.

Grenville, whose novel The Idea of Perfection won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001 and whose early work was championed by Australia's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White, said she was thrilled with the award.

"It's a great honour -- all the more so because the long journey of this book began as such a very personal quest, into my own family history," she said.

"It's very wonderful to me that such an individual and particular search seems to have evolved into a book that resonates with others."

The annual Commonwealth Writers' Prize celebrates the best fiction in the Commonwealth in English. Previous recipients of its top prize include Andrea Levy for Small Island, Caryl Phillips for A Distant Shore and Peter Carey for True History of the Kelly Gang.

Zadie Smith won best first book in 2001 for White Teeth.

Chair of the international judging panel, Chris Wallace-Crabbe of the University of Melbourne, said that the adjudicators had been "intrigued by the outstanding quality of the works of fiction facing them."

"Books flowed to the prize from Guyana to New Zealand, from Malta to Malaysia," he said in a statement.

Wallace-Crabbe praised McWatt's book as "a delightful caravan of stories that explore the changing character of Guyana."

McWatt, who is head of English at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, has previously published two collections of poetry.

He said he was deeply privileged to have been awarded the prize for best first book, "especially since I have come to know, over the past days, the work of the other regional winners and to realize how wonderful all the competing books are."