Lee Lawrence’s memoir of his mother’s shooting by police wins Costa award

The Louder I Will Sing wins best biography, with other prizes including best novel for Monique Roffey and posthumous poetry honour for Eavan Boland

Debut author Lee Lawrence has won the Costa biography award for a memoir about his lengthy quest to find justice for his mother, who was left paralysed after being shot by London police in 1985.

Lawrence saw off competition from authors including Booker winner Julian Barnes to win the £5,000 biography category for The Louder I Will Sing. Judges for the Costa prize called it “a revelatory book and a terrific story” which is “acutely timely and exceptionally important”.

The memoir tells of how his mother, Dorothy “Cherry” Groce, was shot by police looking for Lawrence’s brother in her Brixton home on 28 September 1985, when Lawrence was 11 years old. “In the middle of that hot pot of boiling-over rage, terror, confusion and noise, I realised they were police officers. The man who’d shot my mum was a policeman,” he writes. “Mum was wheezing on the floor, her face creased with pain, with worry. I can’t breathe, she kept saying. I think I’m going to die. I can’t feel my legs.”

The bullet shattered Groce’s spine, and she never walked again, with the wrongful shooting triggering two days of rioting. When she died in 2011, the pathologist found that it was bullet fragments left in her spine that caused the renal failure which killed her, with Lawrence writing of his lengthy battle to get the police to recognise their wrongdoing.

On Monday, Lawrence said he was “taken aback” by his win. “For me, writing the book was more of a mission, it was just about getting our story out there, a narrative that hasn’t been told before, and for people to get a bit more of an insight into my mum, to understand we were just a normal family living in Brixton,” he said. “One of my mantras was courage over fear, because it was a scary process to allow myself to be so vulnerable, so exposed. To be recognised in this way is like a bonus for me, something I wasn’t expecting.”

Lawrence, a social change advocate who created the company Mobility Transport, which provides accessible transport for disabled people, said he hoped the win would gain attention from “people who might not necessarily have looked at a book like this, who will learn something about what we went through, and maybe have more empathy about how people are treated differently just because of their skin colour and the area they happen to live in”.

The author, who today consults with the Metropolitan police to help improve community engagement, first thought about writing the book as a teenager, after seeing documentaries about the Brixton uprisings focus on the events of 1981, but skim over Groce’s story. “My mum’s story is just as important as what happened in 1981, why was there nothing about it in detail?” he said. “But it wasn’t until my mum passed in 2011, and I got hold of the internal investigation report into my mum’s shooting, I knew I had to start documenting what’s going on.”

Four other authors also won Costa prizes on Monday evening. The £5,000 Costa award for best novel went to Monique Roffey for The Mermaid of Black Conch, in which a fisherman’s singing attracts a centuries-old mermaid. Roffey’s seventh novel, described by judges as “a story of rare imagination and exciting scale – an adventure and a fable, a glorious myth that tells a far bigger story”, beat titles including Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited Piranesi to the prize.

The Costa first novel award was won by Ingrid Persaud for Love After Love, which is set in Trinidad around the unconventional household of Betty Ramdin, her shy son Solo and their lodger, Mr Chetan. Persaud’s story was described by judges as “an exuberant, outstanding novel, teeming with life, full of unforgettable characters and written with such brio and style”.

The poetry award was won by the late Irish writer Eavan Boland for her final collection, The Historians, which judges said contained “some of the finest lines of poetry written this century”. Boland is the third poet to win the category posthumously, joining Ted Hughes and Helen Dunmore.

The children’s book award went to Natasha Farrant for Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, in which two children set off from England to France in the wake of the first world war. “We loved everything about this remarkable, special, delightful book – pure heavenly escapism and a purely joyful read,” said judges.

More than 700 books were submitted for this year’s Costa awards, which recognise the most enjoyable books in five categories. One overall winner will be chosen later this month as the Costa book of the year, winning £30,000.

Since the book of the year prize was introduced in 1985, it has been won 12 times by a novel, five times by a first novel, eight times by a biography, eight times by a collection of poetry and twice by a children’s book. Last year’s award went to Jack Fairweather’s biography The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz.

2020 Costa book award winners

Novel: The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

First novel: Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

Biography: The Louder I Will Sing by Lee Lawrence

Poetry: The Historians by Eavan Boland

Children’s books: Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant

• This article was amended on 27 January 2021 to correct a misspelling of Cherry Groce’s surname.

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Costa first novel award winner recalls 'awful' time writing his book
Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle wins £5,000 honour, alongside Sally Rooney who is the youngest author ever to win best novel

Alison Flood

07, Jan, 2019 @7:30 PM

Article image
Costa book awards shortlist memoir of homeless couple's coast walk
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn is acclaimed by judges as ‘an absolutely brilliant story about the human capacity to endure’

Alison Flood

22, Nov, 2018 @7:30 PM

Article image
Costa book award 2016 shortlists dominated by female writers
Rose Tremain, Maggie O’Farrell and Sarah Perry lead contenders for the £30,000 top prize

Sian Cain

22, Nov, 2016 @7:30 PM

Article image
'Utterly original' Monique Roffey wins Costa book of the year
The Mermaid of Black Conch takes £30,000 award for 2020’s most enjoyable book, acclaimed by judges a classic in the making

Alison Flood

26, Jan, 2021 @7:30 PM

Article image
Helen Dunmore wins posthumous Costa award for collection Inside the Wave
Dunmore wins poetry category, while Jon McGregor takes best novel prize for Reservoir 13 and Gail Honeyman’s bestselling debut Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine lands first novel award

Sian Cain

02, Jan, 2018 @7:30 PM

Article image
Costa prize 2021 shortlists highlight climate anxiety
Jessie Greengrass’s novel The High House, set in a flood-devastated Suffolk was one of several of the nominees to focus on global heating, said judges

Alison Flood

23, Nov, 2021 @7:30 PM

Article image
Debut author of Queenie caps success with Costa prize shortlisting
Candice Carty-Williams, who began writing to improve representation of black British characters in fiction, joins 19 other authors contending for prestigious book of the year honour

Alison Flood

26, Nov, 2019 @7:30 PM

Article image
Jonathan Coe wins Costa prize for ‘perfect’ Brexit novel
Middle England’s EU referendum story secures the 2019 novel award and goes up against first fiction, poetry and biography for Costa book of the year

Alison Flood

06, Jan, 2020 @7:30 PM

Article image
'I'm flabbergasted': Monique Roffey on women, whiteness and winning the Costa
The Mermaid of Black Conch’s author explains why she expected ‘a quiet life’ for the formally daring, magical realist novel that has been declared book of the year

Claire Armitstead

27, Jan, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Monique Roffey leads strong showing for indies on Rathbones Folio shortlist
The Costa winner is up for award honouring the best work of literature regardless of genre, alongside many other titles from small presses

Alison Flood

10, Feb, 2021 @7:20 PM