February 1, 2018

A posthumous win for Helen Dunmore at this year’s Costa Awards


Helen Dunmore, in 2008. Via WikiMedia Commons.

This past Tuesday, at a central London restaurant called Quaglino’sHelen Dunmore’s posthumous collection Inside the Wave was awarded the Costa Book Award for poetry, and named the Costa Book of the Year.

The prestigious Costa Book Awards, open to residents of the UK and Ireland, has been going since 1971. Each year, awards are given for novel, first novel, children’s book, poetry, and biography; one of the five winners is then singled out as the Book of Year. In the awards’ forty-seven year history, only one other author (Ted Hughes, in 1998, for Birthday Letters) has won the prize posthumously.

Dunmore died of cancer last June at the age of sixty-four. She finished Inside the Wave while in hospital; it includes one poem, “Hold Out Your Arms,” written just ten days before her death.

The chair of the judging panel, Wendy Holden, was quoted by the Bookseller’s Katherine Cowdry:

 “The judges all felt it was a modern classic, it was a collection of poems with a very strong message, and even though they were written by the author that was dying they were very life affirming and they would appeal—which is Costa’s ideal—to a wide range of people, even people who didn’t usually read poetry. It’s a fantastic collection, incredibly moving, incredibly strong, by an author right at the top of her game. It was a very close decision but one everybody was ultimately very happy with.”

Dunmore’s children Patrick and Tess, and her husband Frank Charnley, were at the ceremony to accept the award. Patrick told Sian Cain at the Guardian:

“The whole family is delighted — and a bit shocked. It is very emotional.

“For Mum to win the overall prize is staggering. We’re so thrilled. But there is a lot of sadness that she is not here. But she would have been really over the moon, particularly because it was her poetry… She’d have been so pleased to know that her win would bring new people to poetry.”

There were also, of course, four other winners on Tuesday. Gail Honeyman (who had been the bookies’ favourite to take home the big win) triumphed in the the first novel category with her book Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineReservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the winning novel. The Explorer by Katherine Rundell won in children’s books. In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott was the winning biography

Inside the Wave is the the eighth Book of the Year to have ever been selected from the poetry category.

While congratulations are due all around, I can’t help but notice that of the twenty shortlisted books, only four came from independent publishers. And of the five winning books, three came from HaperCollins, one from Bloomsbury and one from Bloodaxe. It can be a tough old life being an indie publisher. Little fame and fortune for us. But we love it, and we continue fighting.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.