Orange prize-shortlisted author Emma Donoghue, nominated for Room. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
First-time novelists make up half the shortlist for the 2011 Orange prize for fiction, indicating “the rude health of women’s writing”, according to this year’s chair of judges Bettany Hughes.
The list includes novels that tackle strikingly difficult subjects – not least Kathleen Winter’s debut novel Annabel, which tells the story of a baby born in back-of-beyond Newfoundland with both male and female genitalia.
Then there is inhuman imprisonment in Emma Donoghue‘s Room; mental illness in Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud; the Sierra Leonean civil war in Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love; the aftermath of the Balkan civil war in Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife; and traumas, sorrows and terrible secrets in Nicole Krauss’s Great House.
“The clarity and human understanding on the page is simply breathtaking,” said Hughes. “The verve and scope of storylines pays compliment to the female imagination. There are no subjects these authors don’t dare to tackle.
“Even though the stories in our final choices range from kidnapping to colonialism, from the persistence of love to Balkan folk-memory, from hermaphroditism to abuse in care, the books are written with such a skilful lightness of touch, humour, sympathy and passion, they all make for an exhilarating and uplifting read. This shortlist should give hours of reading pleasure to the wider world.”
Judges chose the shortlist from a longlist of 20. One of the most notable omissions is Jennifer Egan’s multi-layered A Visit From the Goon Squad which has done fantastically well in US literary prizes, beating Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to the the fiction prize from the National Books Critics Circle last month.
The first-time novelists are Henderson, Obreht and Winter, a former Sesame Street writer who was born in Gateshead but whose family moved to Canada when she was a young girl.
Just getting shortlisted will mean a healthy spike in sales but the writers have to wait until 8 June before the £30,000 winner is named.
Recent winners have included US novelists Barbara Kingsolver, who won last year for The Lacuna, and Marilynne Robinson in 2009 for Home.
The prize was created in 1996 to celebrate and promote fiction written by women.
The judges this year include publisher Liz Calder, novelist Tracy Chevalier, actor Helen Lederer and BBC broadcaster Susanna Reid.
Hughes, a broadcaster and historian, said the calibre of submissions was high. “Our judging meeting fizzed for many hours with conversations about the originality, excellence and readability of the books in front of us.”