Established in 1950, the National Book Award has become America's premier literary prize. In 2018, publishers submitted 1,637 books for consideration to the panels of literary experts judging this year's awards: 368 in fiction, 546 in Nonfiction, 256 in poetry, 142 in translated literature (a revitalized category that last appeared in 1983) and 325 in young people's literature. A longlist of ten books per category was announced in the middle of September, and a shortlist of five books per category was announced on October 10th. The winners were announced on Wednesday, November 14th during a black-tie ceremony hosted by actor and author Nick Offerman at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. The award for nonfiction went to The New Negro: The Life of Alan Locke by Jeffrey Stewart. The poetry award was won by Justin Phillip Reed for Indecency. The award for translated literature went to The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani. Elizabeth Acevado received the young people's literature award for The Poet X. And the centerpiece, the award for fiction, went to Sigrid Nunez for her 8th book, The Friend.
The Friend is about a woman who unexpectedly loses her best friend, who was also her mentor, and unexpectedly finds herself taking care of the dog he left behind. Her own grief is intensified by the suffering of the dog, a massive Great Dane who is clearly traumatized by his owner's disappearance. In addition, the woman is threatened with eviction because dogs are prohibited in her apartment building. She refuses to be separated from the dog except for brief periods of time, becomes isolated from her friends and colleagues and is increasingly obsessed with the dog's care. The Friend is not only about how we cope with the loss of a loved one but also about the connection between humans and their canine companions.
Sigrid Nunez has been the previous recipient of several awards, including a Whiting Award, the Rome Prize in Literature and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. Nunez, who is known as a "writer's writer," is the author of Salvation City, The Last of Her Kind, A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, Mitz, Sempre Susan and For Rouenna. In accepting the award, Nunez said in part: "I was lucky enough as a child to have had a mother and teachers who taught me that whatever happened in life, however bad things might get, I could always escape by reading a book...I was lucky enough to keep on meeting...people who believed that reading and writing were the best things a person could do with her life...I became a writer not because I was seeking community but rather because I thought it was something I could do alone and hidden in the privacy of my own room. How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible: to be removed from the world and to be a part of the world at the same time."
In addition to the book awards, the ceremony honored Isabel Allende with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She is the first Spanish-language author to receive this award. In accepting the award, which has previously been won by, among others, Toni Morrison, John Updike and last year Annie Proulx, Allende said in part: "I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person's story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred. Because we realize that the similarities that bring us together are many more than the differences that separate us."
I read The Friend when it was released earlier this year. It's powerfully written and filled with some magical realism that takes the story in unexpected directions. It's a short book and one that will resonate with dog lovers and with anyone who has suffered the loss of a close friend. Among the other shortlisted fiction titles, Lauren Groff's dark and intense short story collection Florida was widely considered the front runner, and many were pulling for Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers, a novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris. All three are worthy reads for cold winter days and nights. Enjoy them.