There are five principle categories - First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book - with one of the five winners chosen as Book of the Year, announced at an awards ceremony in London every January.
Launched in 1971 as the Whitbread Literary Awards, they became the Whitbread Book Awards in 1985, with Costa taking over in 2006. This year for the first time since Philip Pullman won in 2001 with 'The Amber Spyglass', a children’s novel has taken the honours.
Set in 1863, a family have just arrived in the remote, rain-swept Channel Island of Vane. The head of the family, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a renowned natural scientist, and ostensibly he has travelled to Vane to help with a dig at an ancient site. His fourteen-year-old daughter Faith, however, suspects that the family have left the mainland hastily because they are fleeing from something. When the father she idolises is found dead, only Faith believes that he was murdered. Looking through his notes, she discovers more about a strange plant that her father was desperate to hide from everybody. He believed that it was a Lie Tree - if somebody whispered a lie to it and then persuaded as many people as possible to believe the lie, it would bear a fruit, which could be eaten to learn an important secret. In her quest to learn the secret of her father's murder, Faith decides to feed the Lie Tree, and spread her own lies in the island community. Of course, they do not remain 'her own' for long, since lies have a way of running out of control...
Hardinge, having won the Children’s award was quite surprised to take the main prize. Humble and self depreciating she stressed she was still in shock at the result, anyone whose read her work was less so. Hardinge's modest demeanour belies a brilliant mind, a master storyteller who gently pulls and plats the threads of story arcs together creating a rich and textured narrative. 'The Lie Tree' is “a Victorian gothic murder mystery, but with more palaeontology, post mortem photography, feminism, lie-munching foliage and blasting powder".
Comparisons with Pullman have obviously been made they share the city of Oxford in common as well as both being authors of acclaimed children’s fiction. Hardinge is flattered yet side steps the comparison... “Being mentioned in the same sentence as Philip Pullman is rather wonderful, but he's a giant in children's fiction, and I wouldn't say that I was in his league.”
The city of Oxford however is a factor in her literary world; As for Oxford, I lived there very happily for about twenty years, so it probably did affect me and my writing. I always found it easier to think there. It's beautiful, anachronistic, non-Euclidean, helplessly eccentric and fascinating. A city like that does seep into your brain.
Hardinge describes 'The Lie Tree' as a feminist book, indeed inequality is central to storyline, she writes; “It takes a good look at the gender inequality of the Victorian age, and the negative effects of that inequality, so yes. At the point where I realised that I would be setting the story of The Lie Tree in the nineteenth century, and that my main character would be a smart teenage girl with an interest in science, gender wasn't really something I could ignore. Such a girl was likely to have encountered endless rejections and obstacles, her dreams and aspirations crushed at every turn. It didn't seem right to tip-toe round that.”
It's this aspect of the book, that led James Heneage, one of the judges on the Costa prize board, to describe 'The Lie Tree' as an important book which highlighted issues that affect teenage girls. Have things gotten better for teenage girls? Hardinge believes so, “Well, things are a lot better than they were in the mid-nineteenth century, but we're not there yet.”, adding further “Gender stereotyping does nobody any favours, male or female, so it's healthy to have books out there that challenge or dismantle these stereotypes...”.
Faith is a complicated character, and far from being a simple role model. She has had to suppress a lot of her personality, including a great deal of anger. The ways in which this anger finds outlets aren't always admirable, but are hopefully understandable. There's a lot of internal conflict, since she has internalised much of what she has been taught about her role as a female and dutiful daughter. During the course of the book she breaks out of this constraining shell... but you might not want to be standing too close to her when she does.
Hardinge hopes Faith will strike a chord with anybody who has been pushed into playing a role, or forced to suppress a part of themselves, or undermined at every turn, or not taken seriously. They may realise that it's OK, she says “...to feel angry. Just because you're angry, it doesn't mean you're wrong. Faith is a difficult heroine, and makes mistakes, but she has courage, intelligence and strength of will.”
Some might challenge the rationale of complex themes and messages in Children's and Young Adult fiction but to do so is to underestimate children's cognisance and sophistication not to mention the extraordinary quality of the writing. The genre has a history of tackling difficult and challenging issues and high profile wins like Costa awards, prove it doesn't do so at the cost of entertainment to both the Children's and Adult markets in fact its increase the genres reach. Hardinge says “The crossover market has definitely expanded. I'm very happy to see more and more adults openly reading children's and YA literature. It's always good to see people overcoming preconceptions and discovering whole new worlds of enjoyable and rewarding books. For one thing, it's very liberating. Adult genres can be a little ghetto-ised. When writing for younger readers, you can get away with a lot more genre-crunching and experimentation. It would make me very happy if my win led to the wide range of excellent children's and YA literature out there receiving more attention, sales and critical acclaim. I would have been delighted to see any children's book win the Book of Year for exactly this reason.”
But would Hardinge like to visit the worlds of her books to jump back a few hundred years? “No, not really.” she says, “I create settings that are rich, surprising, macabre, comical or implausible, because the world I experience is rather a lot like that. I suppose we all live in a reality shaped by our own perspective and choices. Talk to enough people, follow enough impulses, seize enough chances and nothing is boring. The past is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.” adding, “I'm rather too fond of certain modern luxuries, like penicillin and the vote.”
The author is hoping to visit New Zealand again soon, having already spent time over here. “New Zealand is one of the friendliest places I've ever visited, and you do have the most amazing volcanoes and geothermal areas. I'm somewhat addicted to volcanoes…” In the meantime she is already working on her eighth novel - a YA book for Publisher Macmillan, set during the early English Civil War.