Claire Keegan wins Orwell prize for novel about 1980s Ireland | Books

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan and My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden have won the Orwell prizes for political fiction and writing.

Keegan’s “beautifully written evocation of Ireland in the 1980s” has won the fiction prize, while Hayden’s “urgent and compassionate” book took the political writing prize. Both authors will be awarded £3,000.

Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation, said the winners have, “in very different ways, written gripping stories about things that should alarm us: there are awful truths right at the heart of our societies and systems”.

However, because of their “wit, elegance and compassion”, both books “also help us think about the choices we make, and how to make the future better”, she added. “Orwell would be proud.”

Small Things Like These is set in an Irish town in the weeks leading up to Christmas 1985, and focuses on Bill Furlong, a coal and timber merchant confronted with an ethical dilemma.

Keegan, who lives in County Wexford, Ireland, was chosen as the winner by a panel chaired by novelist and professor Adam Roberts. He was joined by writer, translator and lecturer Dennis Duncan, writer and editor Sana Goyal and Costa book award winner Monique Roffey.

The judges praised the “precise and unwavering” story of “a good man and his ordinary life” and how the decision he makes “unlocks major, present questions about social care, women’s lives and collective morality.”

Meanwhile Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned investigates the migrant crisis across north Africa and into Europe from a number of angles, centring on the experience and testimony of refugees. Hayden, an award-winning journalist, started working on the book after she received a Facebook message from a refugee in a Libyan prison.

The judging panel for the political writing prize was chaired by the historian David Edgerton. He was joined by Stephen Bush, columnist and associate editor at the Financial Times, Kennetta Hammond Perry, founding director of the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre and Anne McElvoy, broadcaster and senior editor of the Economist.

The judges said Hayden’s reporting was an “extraordinary exploration of a modern reality using modern means: truly a book of our times”.

“While many people seeking refuge from the terrible logics of repression, war and poverty cannot easily cross frontiers, phone and Facebook messages can,” the panel said. “They allow contact with home but are also the means by which ransoms are gruesomely demanded by traffickers.”

However, “they are also the way in which Hayden explores the lives of people stuck under the control of traffickers, militias, the UN, and lets them speak to us as full human beings: hungry, ill, and often doomed in their quest for safety,” they added. “She gets the terrible truth out to a world that has been far too indifferent.”

The 2021 Orwell prize for political fiction was won by Ali Smith for her novel Summer, while the prize for political writing was won by Joshua Yaffa for Between Two Fires.

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