The Butchers: novel set in Irish BSE crisis wins Ondaatje prize

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Ruth Gilligan’s literary thriller The Butchers, set in the Irish borderlands during the BSE crisis, has won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje prize for books that “best evoke the spirit of a place”.

Gilligan’s novel beat titles including James Rebanks’ memoir of his family farm, English Pastoral, and Nina Mingya Powles’ poetry collection Magnolia, 木蘭 to the £10,000 prize. The Butchers opens with an ancient curse that decrees that eight men must touch every cow in Ireland as it dies, and follows a group of eight men as they roam rural Ireland in the 1990s, slaughtering the cows of those who still believe in the old ways. The novel unpicks the mysterious death of one of the Butchers, whose corpse is found suspended from a meat hook.

Related: The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan review – scepticism v superstition

Chair of judges Lola Young said The Butchers had been described as a “literary thriller, coming-of-age story, historical fiction, an account of superstition and the supernatural, but it doesn’t matter how it’s categorised – it’s a page-turning, rollercoaster of a read”.

“Our winning title is about a moment in time, in a particular place,” she said. “The humour works – we need relief from repressed emotional lives, and the slaughter of cows – and it lures us into recalling the recent past at a moment when ‘crisis’ was constantly on the lips of politicians and pundits alike, just like today.”

Her fellow judge and author Helen Mort described the novel as “folklore meets the pressures of modern capitalism”. “Throughout, we experience Ireland at a turning point, a time of rapid change and we are swept along with it,” said Mort. “And throughout, landscape lives and breathes.”

Gilligan, the Irish author of five books and creative writing lecturer at the University of Birmingham, said she was “just elated and totally shocked” to have won.

“I am a sucker for books with a strong sense of place, so I have long been a huge fan of the prize, but after a year of isolation and confinement, it feels more pertinent than ever to be celebrating the transportive power of reading,” she said. “There were some absolute crackers on the shortlist, so I am truly honoured that the judges chose The Butchers.”

Previous winners of the Ondaatje prize include Roger Robinson for his poetry collection A Portable Paradise; Alan Johnson for his memoir of his childhood in the slums of west London, This Boy; and Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam for her account of her grandmother’s life story, The Wife’s Tale.

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