Nigerian author wins top women's fiction prize

LONDON (Reuters) - Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie landed the Orange Prize on Wednesday, one of the literary world’s top awards given to women writers, for a novel set in the 1960s Biafran civil war.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” had been front-runner to win the 30,000 pound ($60,000) prize for the writer, short-listed for the Orange in 2004 for her debut novel “The Purple Hibiscus.”

“This really comes as a wonderful, wonderful surprise,” Adichie said after collecting the prize.

But she had feared the worst after having her handbag stolen at a London reading of her book on Tuesday and because the novel was so strongly favored to win.

“When I was told I was the bookies’ favorite in that wonderfully curious British tradition of betting on everything, I immediately thought it was the kiss of death,” she said.

The book tells the story of three characters -- a poor houseboy, a glamorous woman and a shy Englishman -- who are caught up in the conflict and have to run for their lives.

The Orange, established in 1996, had a distinctly international flavor in 2007 with authors also shortlisted from Britain, China, India and the United States for the prize, awarded to the best book written in English by a woman over the past 12 months.

Second favorite -- and also making her second appearance on the shortlist -- had been Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. author Anne Tyler for “Digging to America,” which probes cultural differences in American society.

Another hotly fancied contender was Indian novelist Kiran Desai, who last year became the youngest winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for “The Inheritance of Loss,” about an embittered judge seeking a quiet retirement in the Himalayas.

Xiaolu Guo was shortlisted for her romantic comedy “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers” which is written in deliberately bad English.

Broadcaster Muriel Gray, who chaired the judging panel for the Orange award, had stirred controversy by complaining that the shortlist emerged from “a lot of dross.”

She said some of the 150 entries for the prize were so bad she could not believe trees had been cut down to publish them.

Too many women, she said, wrote trivial novels inspired by minor domestic problems or crises in their relationships.

But she was fulsome in praise of the winner, saying of Adichie’s novel: “This is a moving and important book by an incredibly exciting author.”

Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Lionel Shriver rank as three of the most prominent past winners of the prize which consistently stokes controversy among literary critics and authors.

The late novelist Kingsley Amis once said he would not care to win it if he were a woman. Female author A.S. Byatt said the prize “ghettoized” women.