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Philippe Sands Clinches Britain's Biggest Non-Fiction Prize

Posted on 15th November 2016 by Sally Campbell & Peter Whitehead
Since 1999, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction has reigned as Britain’s pre-eminent award for non-fiction writing. From Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad onward, each year has brought us a winner that has moved on to become a Waterstones staple – Anna Funder’s Stasiland, for example, her engrossing, insider account of pre-unification Germany, or the groundbreaking melange of genres that was Helen Macdonald’s bestselling H is for Hawk. Now running under its new name, The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, this £30,000 award continues to be the literary benchmark for factual writing published in the UK.

Under the Chair of Stephanie Flanders, the five-strong judging panel have chosen a new successor to that fine list with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, which tonight conquered a superb shortlist to claim The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2016.

In what Daniel Finkelstein in The Times described as ‘a work of great brilliance… everything that happens is inevitable and yet comes as a surprise… in places I gasped, in places I wept,’ East West Street is both a history of atrocity and a relentless, brilliantly-pitched search for the truth. By seeking out the decimated past of his own family, Sands unearths the then-controversial origins of international human rights itself.

Philippe Sands offers a complex but effortlessly-structured narrative of interlinked lives. At its heart lie the two legal minds who together brought into our syntax the notions of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, but Sands – himself an international human rights lawyer – brings to bear a remarkably exhaustive level of research to exhume layer after layer of forgotten detail, unerringly focused on filling in the gaping tragedies of his family’s history. In the process, he both wrestles with the outcome of the laws created at the time and delineates the death machine built to destroy an entire people.

From a superlative shortlist, Philippe Sands’ East West Street has emerged as a worthy victor and we offer the author our heartfelt congratulations. Of course, the remaining three nominees for this most prestigious of prizes still offer rich investigation – Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, the bruising but wise account of a son’s search for his father, abducted by Gaddafi’s Libya; Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time, the  Nobel-winning journalist’s powerful post-Soviet literary tapestry; and Negroland: A Memoir from critic Margo Jefferson, a searching reflection on the author’s own African-American bourgeois origins.

With its change of name, it seems resolutely clear that the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction has lost none of its perceptive edge and that Philippe Sands’ East West Street surely sets the bar for the award’s future. 



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