Former war-reporter Jack Fairweather has won the prestigious Costa Book of the Year award, receiving a £30,000 prize for his biography of a Polish resistance fighter who infiltrated Auschwitz.
Fairweather’s The Volunteer follows the life of Witold Pilecki who started an underground network in the camp after being voluntarily captured and transported there in 1940. The story begins on 19 September, when the Nazis began targeting the Jewish and Polish professional class; throughout the novel Fairweather charts Pilecki’s attempts to sabotage Nazi facilities, draw together evidence of the mass murder of the Jews, and spread information about Auschwitz to the Allies. Meanwhile Fairweather also presents an outside perspective, as Pilecki’s calls for the bombing of the camp were ignored. Both strands of the narrative, as well as quotes and statistics that Fairweather collected and translated himself from primary sources, build a remarkable account of a single man’s stand against the Nazis and his experiences of one the most notorious concentration camps in existence during World War II. Fairweather dedicated his win to Pilecki’s children, who for decades knew only that their father had been executed as an ‘enemy of state’ in 1948 – it was not until fifty years later that they became aware of what Pilecki had really achieved inside Auschwitz. Fairweather’s win is particularly significant after Holocaust Remembrance Day was recognised across the world on Monday, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Costa’s Book of the Year Award was set up in 1971 and aims to select the ‘most enjoyable book’ from those published in the UK and Ireland each year. There are five categories – First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book – with the Book of the Year chosen from the winner in each category. Costa also launched the Costa Short Story Award in 2012, encouraging both published and unpublished writers to submit their stories online to be voted for by the public. At the awards ceremony in central London on Tuesday, Sara Collins claimed the prize in the First Novel category for The Confessions of Frannie Langton, while Jonathan Coe’s Middle England won Best Novel; Flèche by Mary Jean Chan was named the winner in the poetry category, and Jasbinder Bilan’s Asha & the Spirit Bird won Best Children’s Book. US-born Anna Dempsey claimed the Short Story Award and won £3,500 for her work The Dedicated Dancers of the Greater Oaks Retirement Community.