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31 May 2012

Debut US novelist Madeline Miller has won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction with The Song of Achilles, a story of same-sex romance set in the Greek age of heroes.

"This is a more than worthy winner - original, passionate, inventive and uplifting," said Joanna Trollope, chair of judges.

"Homer would be proud of her," she said of the former classics teacher.

The £30,000 prize recognises English language fiction written by women.

This year's prize is the last to carry the Orange name, after the mobile services company announced last week it was ending its 17-year sponsorship.

Miller is the fourth American author in a row to win the annual prize.

The other novelists on the shortlist were former winner Ann Patchett for State of Wonder, Esi Edugyan for Half Blood Blues, Anne Enright for The Forgotten, Georgina Harding for Painter of Silence, and Cynthia Ozick for Foreign Bodies.

Miller received her prize - and a bronze figurine known as "a Bessie" - at an awards ceremony at London's Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday evening.

The Song of Achilles was first published by Bloomsbury in September 2011.

The story sees Patroclus, an awkward young prince, exiled to Phthia where he befriends the strong, beautiful Achilles.

As their relationship deepens, word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped and the pair journey to Troy.

Reviewers have picked up on the novel's racy sword-and-sandals plotline.

"There is plenty of sexual tension (and actual sex), much of it homoerotic: Brokeback Mountain sets sail for Troy," said The Independent's Viv Groskop.

"It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial genres."

But the New York Times' Daniel Mendelsohn was unconvinced: "The real Achilles' heel of this book is tone - one made disastrously worse by the author's decision to metamorphose an ancient story of heroes into a modern tale of hormones."

The only first-time writer on the shortlist, Boston-born Miller graduated from Brown University with a BA and MA in Classics.

She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama specialising in adapting classical tales for a modern audience.

She worked on The Song of Achilles for 10 years, and lives in New England, where she teaches Latin and writes.

Alongside Joanna Trollope on the judging panel were writers and broadcasters Lisa Appignanesi, Victoria Derbyshire, Natalie Haynes and Natasha Kaplinsky.

The judges said the legendary love story of Patroclus and Achilles was "told with all the intensity and accuracy that this world of violence and superstition and romance deserves".

Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles bookshops, said: "Word-of-mouth has been spreading steadily for this stylishly told and fascinatingly detailed story of classical-era same-sex romance involving literature's ultimate flawed hero."

The Orange Prize for Fiction was set up in 1996 to celebrate and promote English-language fiction written by women throughout the world.

Previous winners of the prize include Tea Obreht for The Tiger's Wife (2011), Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna (2010) and Lionel Shriver for We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005).


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