How we chose the winner of the Guardian first book award

William Dalrymple explains how the judges for the Guardian first book award 2012 came to their decision

In literary legend, fights between prize jurors are almost as important a part of the landscape as the award ceremony. Each time the Man Booker prize is awarded the diary columns are full of rival jurors anonymously sounding off against one another. By that light, this year's Guardian First Book award was a miserable disappointment. For astonishingly, we all agreed on almost everything.

I, for one, was very proud of the shortlist. I was mildly miffed that one of my favourite non-fiction books - Faramerz Dhaboiwala's The Origins of Sex , a fascinating look at the 18th-century sexual revolution - did not make it through, but those that did had real merit. In Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson we had a witty and lively novel set somewhere between the worlds of Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh. Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding is so accomplished it was difficult to believe it could be a debut novel. Lindsey Hilsum's Sandstorm is a brave and moving account of the Libyan revolution.

But we all agreed that, of the five books on the shortlist, two stood head and shoulders above the rest. Katherine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers examines the lives and dreams of the ragpickers of the Bombay slum of Annawadi. The irrepressible hopefulness of her characters, shown silhouetted against the looming tragedy of their dispossession, has echoes of Steinbeck's hungry but ever-optimistic migrants in The Grapes of Wrath.

Then there was The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers ( see above ), a clearly autobiographical first novel of pellucid beauty set in the Iraq war, which reads as if Cormac McCarthy had just been enlisted in the US army. It was almost impossible to choose between these two remarkable books, and Jeanette Winterson and I held out for an hour begging to have the prize split in two. But the Guardian wouldn't allow it and in the end we had to choose. Given that one criterion of prize is to reward promise and raw talent, and that Boo is a staff writer on the New Yorker and had just won the National Book Award, while Powers had yet to win anything, we opted to give the prize to him. It's a brilliant book, my favourite novel this year and a very worthy winner.

• Kevin Powers is interviewed on the Books podcast:


William Dalrymple

The GuardianTramp

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