Dazzling tale of Ms Saigon takes top award

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DEBUT novelist Tatjana Soli won Britain's oldest literary prize last night for her love story about a female war photographer covering the fall of Saigon during the closing days of the Vietnam War.

The US writer claimed the James Tait Black Prize for fiction, which is administered by Edinburgh University, with her book The Lotus Eaters, joining the ranks of past winners such as DH Lawrence, William Golding, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark.

The theatre critic Hilary Spurling, a former literary editor of the Spectator, took the prize for best biography with Burying The Bones: Pearl Buck In China. It is the story of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Pearl Buck, famous for living and writing about China.

The prizes were founded in 1919 by Janet Coats, the widow of Edinburgh publisher James Tait Black, to commemorate her husband's love of books. They are awarded every year by the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh.

The winners were announced last night at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in a year when the festivals' eye has been centred on Asia, where both books are largely focused.

Festival director Nick Barley said: "We are delighted to welcome back this prestigious prize to Charlotte Square Gardens. Tatjana Soli is a worthy winner, and we were privileged to enjoy her reading at the event this evening."

Ms Spurling "enthralled our audience" with her book in an appearance last year, he said.

The annual prizes for books that have been published during the previous calendar year are the only major British awards judged by literary scholars and students.

More than 300 works are read by professors and postgraduates at Edinburgh to select the winning titles..

The heroine of Soli's book is photographer Helen Adams, reliving her wartime experience as she makes her way to the US Embassy in Saigon with a wounded Vietnamese man as North Vietnamese forces close in.

Soli, a Californian novelist and short story writer, based the story on intense research of the Vietnam War and experience of the immigrant Vietnamese community in her home state.

She said: "The lineage of the James Tait Black Prizes speaks for itself, and I am humbled and so proud to be part of it. This award is an undreamed of honour that I will always treasure."

Also on the shortlist for the 10,000 fiction prize this year were two other debut novelists Julie Orringer, with The Invisible Bride, and Michael Nath, with La Rochelle.

The final contender was David Mitchell, with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.The shortlisted works for the biography section were: Fordlandia: The Rise And Fall Of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin; A Life In Pictures, by Alasdair Gray; and EM Forster: A New Life, by Wendy Moffat.

James Loxley, head of English literature at the university, said: "The readers and judges have once again shown the acumen of the knowledgeable book lover and literary critic, which has been the hallmark of these prizes for more than 90 years."

Last year, Man Booker prize winner AS Byatt was recipient of the fiction prize for her much-praised novel The Children's Book. John Carey, a familiar face and voice on arts review shows, won the biography prize for William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. William Golding was himself a James Tait Black prizewinner in 1979.