The author of Country Girls gets £ 40,000 David Cohen prize seen as Nobel precursor
Edna O’Brien has been awarded a £ 40,000 Lifetime Achievement Award, considered a precursor to the Nobel for having “politically and lyrically moved mountains through her writing” in a career that spans almost 60 years.
At a London ceremony on Tuesday night, the Irish novelist was awarded with the £ 40,000 David Cohen prize.
Awarded to a living writer every two years for their entire work, the prize was founded in 1993 by the late cultural philanthropist, hoping to launch an equivalent of the Nobel Prize for UK and Irish authors.
Many recipients have gone on to become Nobel laureates, including VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Harold Pinter.
When O’Brien heard the news, Edna O’Brien said, “I’ve often looked at books in bookshops that I have hardly heard of and seen that the authors are the recipients of three, four, five prizes. Naturally, I am very glad to have one prize to put on the back of my book and at the forefront of my mind.”
When asked if she saw the win as a sign that it would be the next Nobel prize, she said: “The fortune tellers have yet to come over the hills about that news, as such.”
O’Brien has written more than 20 novels since her debut, The Country Girls, stunned Ireland with her sexual frankness in 1960, many of which have centered on women’s inner lives and how people around them form their destinies.
She also has play and nonfiction, including her bestselling Country Girl memoir in 2012.
Her latest work, a novel called Girl, was released in September and follows the journey of Boko Haram’s kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirl, a departure from her usual Irish setting.
The judges ‘ chair, Mark Lawson, said that O’Brien had, “achieved a rare arc of brilliant consistency, her literary skill, courage and impact as apparent in a novel published as recently as September as in her first book, which appeared 60 years ago … it is a particular pleasure that it goes this time to an author who is also of such present strength and significance.”
Viv Groskop, a journalist and fellow judge, also said, “her true achievement lies in her ability to redefine – in myriad ways and with a unique voice – what it means to be human”, while Jon McGregor, author and judge, said: “A writer can challenge societal norms and interrogate form all she likes, but first she has to create an appetite for her writing, and O’Brien has spent her long and fruitful career doing exactly that.”
In reference to Girl, the poet and judge Imtiaz Dharker said that: “I thought I had the course of O’Brien’s work mapped out before the judging came around, and then, towards the end of the process, another great tome dropped through the letterbox, changing the whole terrain.

O’Brien said that she became aware of Beresford Dunne’s poetry after seeing her read at a literary festival in Ireland. “I had many claims on who I would wish this prize to go to, including in Nigeria, so it was hard for me.
But I decided to give it to a fellow Irish girl well, she’s a girl and I’m a woman because I know how much she loves poetry and with four children and a husband, she wants more than anything to have a book of poetry published,” she said.


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