This is the fourth year that the $5000 prize has been presented by Adelaide philanthropic group MUD Literary Club as part of Adelaide Writers’ Week, and the first time it has been won by a local author.
The Dictionary of Lost Words was published by Affirm Press at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown last year and sold 58,000 copies in just five months, with the rights also sold to eight international publishers.
Williams was inspired by the “women’s words” which were neglected or discarded by the men who created the first Oxford English Dictionary in the late 19th and early 20th century, with her engaging story centred on a curious girl called Esme who grows up in the Scriptorium where the dictionary words are being defined.
The MUD Literary Prize judges said the book combined Williams’ “talent for historical research with beautiful storytelling”.
“Her highly original story idea threads a strong feminist idea through a crisply written period novel, cleverly capturing the voice of a 1900s woman with believable accuracy. She makes clear sense of big social issues, historical events and the sweeping emotional qualities at play.”
The prize attracted 35 submissions, with the shortlist expanded to six: Lucky’s, by Andrew Pippos; Metal Fish Falling Snow, by Cath Moore; Song of the Crocodile, by Nardi Simpson; The Salt Madonna, by Catherine Noske, and The Things She Owned, by Katherine Tamiko Arguile.
“The fact there was small differences between the judges’ scores – and passionate arguments from all sides – means that all six books rightly deserve to be in the shortlist, and readers will find fantastic variety across the six novels,” says Adelaide Writers’ Week Director Jo Dyer.
Judges commented of the other shortlisted books:
Lucky’s, by Andrew Pippos (Picador Australia): Clever, incisive writing in a vast, sweeping tale. Many threads and layers slowly, patiently reveal themselves as strong, necessary components of the larger story. Each character is tenderly drawn, the depth of their emotions true and believable, and the tangent of their lives realistic.
Metal Fish Falling Snow, by Cath Moore (Text Publishing): A curious, highly original and individualistic tale about the journey of grief, presented from the perspective of an unusual child via their unusual voice. The tale is engaging and incisive, striking resonant notes through acute observations.
Song of the Crocodile, by Nardi Simpson (Hachette Australia): A worthy and important story presenting a raw yet clear Aboriginal perspective of cross- cultural tension and the effects of racism. Terrific insights are provided into Dreamtime legends and tales of Country, providing a First Nations voice that speaks with power.
The Salt Madonna, by Catherine Noske (Picador Australia): A superbly written, gripping and engaging novel, cleverly constructed with deft language and a skillful narrative flow. A very interesting meditation on faith and failure, of actions taken and the problems of actions not taken. Many onion layers to peel away, revealing much to ponder and consider.
The Things She Owned, by Katherine Tamiko Arguile (Affirm Press): An expertly crafted weave of past and present, tracing the influence of a troubled mother and the mysteries her daughter must eventually unravel. Perceptions of these characters change as the full story unravels.
Pip Williams will be presented with her prize at a special session on March 1 at Adelaide Writers’ Week. Writers’ Week will be at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden from February 27 to March 4, with Williams also joining former Macquarie Dictionary editor Sue Butler in a session titled The World of Words on February 28. Katherine Tamiko Arguile, Nardi Simpson and Andrew Pippos will also be guests at Writers’ Week.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.