One of my favourite jobs in recent years was being a judge for the Costa First Novel of the Year award. It was a huge honour to read scores of debut novels and help to whittle them down to a shortlist and then a winner.
I love the fact that the Costa Book Awards celebrate the most outstanding and enjoyable books of the year across five categories – novel, first novel, biography, poetry and children’s book.
The first novel award is always fascinating – me and my fellow judges, Jojo Moyes and Henry Layte, gave the 2011 award to Christie Watson for her book, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away – and this year’s prize is no exception. This year’s judges, Sandeep Mahal, Sophie Raworth and Simon Savidge, declared last week that the 2017 Costa First Novel of the Year award has gone to Gail Honeyman for Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
It’s a brilliant choice and the book is being widely tipped to win the overall prize, which will be announced on January 30.
If you haven’t read it yet I heartily recommend it. It’s touching, tragic, funny and heartwarming in equal measure – but best of all, utterly original.
Here’s a brief resume. Eleanor Oliphant leads a solitary life. Socially awkward, she wears the same frumpy clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink herself to oblivion every weekend. Her life is carefully timetabled, only punctuated by alarming phone calls from her mother. Then one day, a man falls over in the street in front of her and a work colleague and a simple act of kindness shatters the orderly and very empty life that Eleanor has carefully constructed for herself.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a complete joy, with an uplifting ending (in case you’re worried that it’s downbeat and dour). Not surprisingly, the translation rights have been sold all round the world and Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon has optioned it for a film. Honeyman’s debut is up against stiff competition from the other Costa category winners (Jon McGregor, Helen Dunmore, Rebecca Stott and Katherine Rundell) but Eleanor Oliphant is definitely the one I’m rooting for.