Baileys prize goes to The Glorious Heresies

by Alison Flood

Lisa McInerney, who started her career as a writer with a blog about life on a council estate in the “ Arse End of Ireland ”, has won the Baileys women’s prize for fiction with her debut novel, beating Man Booker winner Anne Enright and bestseller Hanya Yanagihara to the £30,000 award.

McInerney’s winning novel The Glorious Heresies tells how an accidental murder – “She hadn’t gotten a look at his face before she flaked him with the Holy Stone and she couldn’t bring herself to turn him over” – plays out in the lives of a cast that includes a 15-year-old drug dealer, his alcoholic father, a prostitute and a gangland boss.

Chair of judges Margaret Mountford, the former lawyer who is best known for her role on The Apprentice, praised the book’s “freshness and vibrancy”, describing it as “a superbly original, compassionate novel that delivers insights into the very darkest of lives through humour and skilful storytelling.”

We were all – and I’m going to use that ghastly Apprentice jargon - 110% agreed

Margaret Mountford

Mountford added: “I come from Ireland, so I can say that the Irish do black humour better than anyone else … You get that rich vein of humour throughout this book, which stops it from being bleak.”

“We were all – and I’m going to use that ghastly Apprentice jargon - 110% agreed. We all thought it was the right choice,” Mountford said The Green Road – won the Irish novel of the year award from the Kerry Group last week. Her other rivals included Yanagihara’s bestselling A Little Life, which was shortlisted for the Booker. Frances Gertler at Foyles bookshop said McInerney’s win was a “brave choice ... by the least conventional and edgiest writer on the list, whose big, gritty and compelling novel about Ireland’s dark underbelly features a cast of alcoholics, drug dealers and prostitutes, leaving a trail of sex, violence and crime in their wake”.

“Her win won’t please everyone,” predicted Gertler. But Mountford said that the judging panel, which also included novelist Elif Shafak, journalists Naga Munchetty and Laurie Penny as well as writer and singer Tracey Thorn, had been clear that The Glorious Heresies was their unanimous choice. The prize is intended to celebrate “excellence, originality and accessibility”, and, won in the past by novels from Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, goes to the best novel of the year by a woman writing in English.

McInerney wrote her debut novel at her agent’s urging. She had previously published just one short story, but had made a name for herself with her Arse End of Ireland blog. Written under the persona Sweary Lady, it detailed life on a Galway council estate and was written while she worked as a receptionist and brought up her young child. The site won McInerney the best humour prize at the Irish blog awards in 2009, and saw her tackling topics from her disgust with “ rural Irish pubs who smugly advertise Live Music! on Saturday nights ” to pain relief in labour .

In an essay written for RTÉ Radio 1’s arts show Arena, on being shortlisted for the Baileys, McInerney said that she was “enormously proud” to make the cut, because when her novel was first published, “a few people thought it necessary to tell me how ‘male’ it was, and that it was no wonder its jacket sported quotes from male writers”.

“I’m still not entirely sure why. Was it because it had a certain boisterousness, when women are best suited to gentle pursuits, like embroidery? Did it seem too sweary, when women’s voices are made for arias and whispered gossip?” she wrote. Being shortlisted for Baileys, which was set up in 1996 in the wake of a Booker prize that overlooked women writers entirely, meant that she became “the default. I am a woman writer and no one is going to waste their time examining my book in the context of my gender.

“In celebrating women’s writing, the Baileys prize does something great. It gives us a roadmap for a space where books by women writers exist as part of a sweeping, chaotic and beautiful literary landscape, where they are allowed to just be, and so its parameters are conversely but conclusively liberating,” McInerney wrote.

Reviewing the novel in the Guardian, Alfred Hickling, wrote that McInerney had “talent to burn”. “You can’t fault her for lack of exuberance, though she has a tendency to treat paragraphs like pinball machines, firing off bold, extended metaphors and letting them ricochet down the page. Such profligacy seems unnecessary when McInerney is equally capable of writing with great clarity and economy.”

The prize has so far been won by two Irish writers, nine Americans, five British, two Canadians, one Australian, and one Nigerian. McInerney was one of 11 debut novelists to be longlisted this year for an award that has increasingly become a showcase for new and emerging talent.

Previous surprise winners include Madeline Miller for her Iliad-inspired debut The Song of Achilles, Tea Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife and Anne Michaels for Fugitive Pieces, alongside more established names such as Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson and Ali Smith. © Guardian News and Media 2016