Lucy Ellmann lands James Tait Black prize, 38 years after her father’s win

Lucy Ellmann has won the UK’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black award, for her novel Ducks, Newburyport – almost four decades after her father achieved the same feat.

Ellmann was announced the winner of the £10,000 fiction category on Friday afternoon, with her 1,000-page, mostly single-sentence novel set inside the consciousness of an Ohio mother living in Donald Trump’s America. Published by tiny Norwich independent Galley Beggar Press, Ducks, Newburyport was also shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2019 and won the Goldsmiths prize for inventive fiction.

“Amid the daily assaults on our lives and intelligence, it is really cheering to receive this prize,” said Ellmann. “I liked the international flavour of the shortlist. English literature exists and thrives way beyond the boundaries of England. If it didn’t, there’d be little hope for it.”

Her father, Richard Ellmann – who was a renowned literary critic and James Joyce scholar – also won the James Tait Black prize for his biography of the Irish author in 1982. On Friday, Ellmann described her win as “quite an Oedipal coup”.

Established in 1919, the James Tait Black prize, split in two categories for fiction and biography, is uniquely judged: by two literature scholars at the University of Edinburgh, who consult two-dozen postgraduate students at the university to build their shortlists and pick the winners.

Dr Benjamin Bateman, this year’s fiction judge, called Ducks, Newburyport “the novel of our maddening moment”. The book was shortlisted alongside Travellers by Helon Habila, Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, and Girl by Edna O’Brien.

The 2020 winner of the £10,000 biography category is George Szirtes for his book on his mother Magda, The Photographer at Sixteen: the Death and Life of a Fighter. Beginning with his mother’s suicide in 1975, the book extends backwards to the Szirtes family’s escape from Hungary as refugees in the 50s, Magda’s survival in two concentration camps during the Holocaust, and her childhood in Transylvania.

Szirtes, an award-winning poet, said he was “delighted, grateful and astonished” to win. As his mother died before any of his books were printed, he said, “The Photographer at Sixteen is an attempt to bring her to life.”

Biography judge Dr Simon Cooke called the book “a piercingly beautiful memoir-as-prose-poem, as generous as it is scrupulous in its searching meditation on a death and life, on memory and history, and on how we imagine the lives of those we love”.

Szirtes was shortlisted alongside What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché, Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson, and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman.

The winners were announced as part of the Edinburgh international book festival, which is taking place online due to the coronavirus pandemic.