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May We Be Forgiven

AM Homes Wins Women's Prize for Fiction

An often breathtakingly dark and crazy satire on modern American life caused a literary upset on Wednesday night when it won the women's prize for fiction beating novels by Zadie Smith, Kate Atkinson and the bookies' favourite, Hilary Mantel.

AM Homes became the fifth American in a row to be named winner of the £30,000 prize, formerly known as the Orange, for her sixth novel, May We Be Forgiven.

The actor Miranda Richardson, who chaired the judging panel, said the book went beyond the prize's criteria of originality, accessibility and excellence. "It was so fresh and so funny – darkly funny – and so unexpectedly moving," she said.

May We Be Forgiven has a devastating car crash, adultery and a murder within the space of the first 14 pages and then never lets up as it charts the increasingly out of control life of Harry, a middle-aged Richard Nixon studies professor.

"It is a book where we all found ourselves laughing out loud on trains or wherever we were reading," said Richardson. "You're laughing in kind of fear or horror as much as anything else. It's relentless, but great."

May We Be Forgiven was named winner of a competition now in its 18th year after a judging session that lasted nearly four hours. That reflected the strength of the shortlist, said Richardson. "Everything was very passionately debated because all these books were capable of winning. Everything was up in the air at several points in the evening but we are all very happy with what we've ended up with."

Homes had a beautifully untrammelled imagination, she said. "There are some minute and wonderful observations and we all loved the characterisations – and the perversion. Standing the American dream on its head and asking us to think about what family may be these days as it becomes more and more complicated."

Richardson said the book reflected her belief: "If you can imagine it, it is probably happening somewhere. Which is a very dark thing to think, but honest."

The book is crammed full with mental breakdown, crime, sex and laser shooting games. Richardson praised the heightened reality in the work: "Or at least we hope it is heightened because God help us if it's not".

The bookmakers' favourite was Mantel who would have made literary history by winning the Man Booker, the Costa and the women's fiction prize with the same book, Bring Up The Bodies, the second in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

Richardson said: "You can't think of what other people might think, want or hope. I am such an admirer [of Mantel] and I think it is the most wonderful book and that doesn't go away."

The win will undoubtedly provide a sales boost for Homes, also a writer for TV – series two of The L Word and a planned HBO show called The Hamptons – as well as novels including The End of Alice, which was controversially narrated by a paedophile, and in 2006, This Book Will Save Your Life.

The other novels on the shortlist were Smith's NW, Atkinson's Life After Life, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour and Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette. The judging panel included the BBC correspondent Razia Iqbal, fellow journalist Rachel Johnson, the author Jojo Moyes and the writer Natasha Walter.

Homes's win continues recent American domination of the competition, won by Madeline Miller last year, and Téa Obreht, Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson before that. The most recent British winner was Rose Tremain in 2008.

This year's competition had been trickier than most because of Orange's decision to end its sponsorship. The prize was bankrolled by supporters, including Cherie Booth, Joanna Trollope and Lady Lane-Fox.

Next year it will be known as the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction after a deal was struck with the liqueur maker – a move that has been broadly welcome although not without some jokes. The comic writer John O'Farrell tweeted: "Women's Prize for Fiction to be sponsored by Baileys. (Nominated books to be given out at Xmas & finished off by teenage daughter & friends)."

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