The Ondaatje Prize is a literary award with a difference: rather than being bestowed on the best book within a particular genre , it goes to the book which best evokes the spirit of a place, whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry. And this year's shortlist includes...yes, Libyan writer Hisham Matar's first novel 'In the Country of Men' once again makes a literary shortlist (last year for example it was shortlisted for Britain's premier literary prize, the Man Booker). One of this year's Ondaatje judges, Adam Nicolson, unveiling the shortlist this morning on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, said that 'In the Country of Men' is "told from the point of view of a young boy under the Gaddafi tyranny, a very beautiful and frightening book". (The pictures here are of Tripoli, where the novel is set in summer 1979).
The £10,000 prize was established by the businessman, philanthropist, adventurer and writer Sir Christopher Ondaatje, and is now in its fourth year. (Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka to Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese-Portuguese parentage, is the brother of Michael Ondaatje who is probably best known for the Booker prizewinning 1992 novel 'the English Patient').
In its first two years the prize was awarded to a travel book, but last year it went to a novel, James Meek's 'The People's Act of Love'. This year there are no travel books on the shortlist. There are two novels; the second novel is 'Half of a Yellow Sun' about the Biafran war, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Nicolson pointed out that the shorlist includes four topographies, ie deep descriptions of place. Roger Hutchinson's book 'Calum's Road' is about a crofter on a Hebridean island. "The county council refused to build a road to his door, so for 20 years he built the road himself, by hand."
'Connemara: Listening to the Wind' is a "huge, monumental book" by Tim Robinson, a Yorkshireman who lived in Ireland for most of his life. It combines history, memoir and reflections on the meaning of place.
'The House by the Thames' by Gillian Tindall is "an extraordinary biography of a single house, a Queen Anne house, on the south bank of the Thames opposite St Paul's. She takes it from its murky, medieval roots right up to its lovely, gentrified condition today with an absolutely dense concentration of meaning within the four walls of a single house over five or six centuries." The sixth book on the shortlist is South African Ivan Vladislavic's 'Portrait with Keys' about Johannesburg today.