by Mark Brown)
udges for one of the UK's most prestigious literary prizes on Tuesday heralded a major new talent when they named mental health nurse Nathan Filer winner of the 2013 Costa book award for a moving account of schizophrenia and grief.
Filer won against more fancied contenders, not least Kate Atkinson, for his debut novel The Shock of the Fall.
The novelist Rose Tremain, who chaired the judges, said: "For a first novel it is astonishingly sure-footed … I think there is genuine excitement about this winner."
The book is narrated by Bristol boy Matthew from the age of five to his early 20s and is a gripping account of his descent into schizophrenic illness following the death of his younger brother. It is told when he is at school, when he is smoking too much marijuana in a grotty flat and from the psychiatric wards he ends up in.
Tremain said, though, it was not just about schizophrenia: "It is about grief and this is a subject we all have experience of. It is grief analysed but treated absolutely without sentimentality. It gets near that and there were moments when I got worried, but it always avoids them."
The Costa prize is unusual in that it pits five category winners – novel, first novel, biography, children's and poetry – against each other for the top £30,000 prize; like comparing chicken curry with custard, as one former judge said.
Atkinson had been strong favourite to win for her eighth novel Life After Life, which would have been her second Costa win. It was not to be. "There's always going to be a bookies' favourite," said Tremain. "By bookies who haven't read the books."
Filer, aged 33, has worked in psychiatric wards for more than a decade. When last asked about it he said he intended to carry on with the odd shift and to keep his nursing registration up.
Tremain said: "To take such a marvellously articulated thing from his professional life and bring it to life in the way he has is such an extraordinary achievement."
The book is the product of Filer's MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University, where he now lectures.
Last year it was the subject of a fierce 11-way bidding war by publishers – always looking for the next potential Mark Haddon and his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was eventually secured by HarperCollins, who offered a six-figure deal.
Filer was clearly not expecting to win, nor was his new wife Emily who he married on Saturday. "I was 100% certain he wasn't going to win," she said.
He was thrilled though. "I wrote this book because I want to share it, I wasn't writing it for myself... I always wanted people to read it and winning this means more and more people will read it so I'm absolutely delighted by that."
Filer said he had felt a responsibility not to propagate myths around mental health and would continue nursing shifts, including one coming up on Sunday.
There is now an expectation, he is the new writing talent on the block. "Of course a pressure comes with something like this as well as the reward but I'm not going to sit here and bemoan a lovely thing that has just happened."
Tremain said the five contenders made up a very good list and all the books were discussed in the two-hour meeting. "In the end it was not very difficult for us to agree." Although "not quite unanimous" there was no blood, Tremain said. "It was a very good natured and articulate jury. It was a very entertaining afternoon."
Filer's Costa win will be life-changing, Tremain acknowledged. "There's always a risk with a first-time winner – is this a one book wonder? You don't know. But this extraordinary style and confidence is not an easy thing to do. If I had to bet on it I would say there are more books in this writer."
He is the fifth first novelist to win, with previous winners including Atkinson who won in 1995 for Behind The Scenes at the Museum. The last one was Stef Penney in 2006 with The Tenderness of Wolves.
The other books missing out on Tuesday were Lucy Hughes-Hallett's biography of Gabriele D'Annunzio, The Pike; Michael Symmons Roberts' poetry collection Drysalter, and Chris Riddell's children's book Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse.
The prize, now in its 42nd year, unashamedly rewards enjoyability. It was known as the Whitbread prize from 1971 to 2005.
This year's nine-strong judging panel included actor Natascha McElhone, Pointless expert Richard Osman, singer Sharleen Spiteri, and authors and writers Gerard Woodward, Emma Kennedy, Anne de Courcy, Matthew Cain and John Burnside.