British author’s novel Solo takes award, with Best First Novel prize going to Australian Glenda Guest

On the day when a band of former winners including AS Byatt, Louis de Bernières and Andrea Levy called for governments around the world to “find new ways to support literacy“, and hoped that this award would help, the British writer Rana Dasgupta has won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ prize with his novel of two halves, Solo. The Australian writer Glenda Guest has won the Best First Novel award with Siddon Rock.

Dasgupta’s second novel, which examines the impact of the 20th century on Bulgaria through the life and dreams of an ageing chemist, controversially won the Guardian’s inaugural Not the Booker prize last year, a development that the author found “very depressing”. On this occasion, speaking on the phone from the ceremony at the International India Centre this afternoon, Dasgupta pronounced himself delighted to have won the £10,000 award.

“This news is about five minutes old,” he said, “so I’m a little stunned.” According to Dasgupta there has been much discussion of the pressure English exerts on languages around the world during the week of workshops, readings and discussions in Delhi attended by the shortlisted authors, “but there are still huge benefits to the global reach of English”.

The traditional invitation for an audience with the Queen, refused by Mark Haddon and Caryl Phillips in 2004, is unlikely to be rebuffed.

“I actually have had a number of questions that I’ve wanted to put to the Queen for a long time,” said Dasgupta, “so if I was to be invited I’d be delighted to get the chance.”

Praised by the judges for its “innovation, ambition, courage and effortlessly elegant prose”, Solo first tells the life story of a Bulgarian chemist, Ulrich, who studies in Germany and plays a part in Bulgaria’s dash for industrialisation before ending his days lonely and blind in a decaying Sofia apartment. The second half brings a swift change of gear, as Ulrich dreams of a violinist discovered by an American record producer in the chaos of the post-communist era, a format that according to the chair of the judges, Nicholas Hasluck, puts Dasgupta “at the cutting edge of responding to the chaos of our times”.

Hasluck also praised Glenda Guest for her innovative use of magical realism in the Australian outback, which “stands in contrast to the realist tradition of Australian writing”. Siddon Rock explores the effect of the second world war on a small town on the salt plains of the Mallee, after a nurse who got caught up on the front returns home.

Guest was as surprised as Dasgupta to have won the £5,000 First Novel award. “I’m standing here like a stunned mullet,” she said.

“It’s not about the money, it’s not about the credit,” she continued, “it’s about being given verification that this is any good, that I can actually write.”

She joins stellar list of winners since the prizes were launched by the Commonwealth Foundation in 1987, including Peter Carey, Vikram Seth and Sarah Hall. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds