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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 17:09 GMT
Inspirational figures in Whitbread race
Selima Hill won the Whitbread Poetry Award Prize
Selima Hill portrays a far from idyllic adolescence
BBC News Online reviews the remaining two books competing for the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year title on 22 January.

Bunny by Selima Hill- winner of the Whitbread poetry award category - was read by Dominic Casciani.

The journey from childhood through adolescence to adulthood should be one of joy, innocence transformed by knowledge and discovery.

It may say that on the packet but it rarely turns out that way when you open it up.

In the case of Selima Hill and her Whitbread winning poetry collection Bunny, that journey was one of dislocation and isolation. Bunny is in parts both edifying and terrifying.

The majority of the 80 short poems focus on life in a father's house with an absent father.

There are strange adults who magnify a feeling of vulnerability and lodgers who are in turn creepy, sinister or the walking-talking evidence that this isn't home.

Cover of Bunny
A rich, dark and readable portrait of growing up
Selima Hill's original intention was to write a happy book about the transition from girl to woman.

But the resulting story has shades of madness and macabre broodings on the loss of innocence. Perhaps fortunately the anchor lies just on the right side of madness.

That anchor lies in an ordinary physical world that defines the trouble with the journey: lodging house sheets that repeat "a million ways of failing to say home"; the passion fruit resembling bruises "rolled into a ball you can suck".

There is no emotional anchor in the adults. The shadow of a father provides no comfort. The aunts are grotesque figures moulding a girl into someone they'd prefer, rather than who she yearns to become.

The creepy lodger preys on a child with a taffeta dress; the girl sees herself as a frozen rabbit in search of its long-gone fur. Truly cold stuff.

But it is also uplifting. There is a real sense of pride in the child as she learns independence from aunts with "little dogs on leads".

Sexual experience, however, veers between the cold and the curious - pity the young woman who finds herself cornered by the man "with a plucking machine for a head".

Selima Hill recently told BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour that she had been troubled by the idea of publishing the poems.

We are better off since she did as this is a wonderfully rich, dark and readable portrait of growing-up.

Bunny by Selima Hill is published by Bloodaxe Books. It won the Whitbread Poetry Award 2001


Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami - winner of the Whitbread biography award - was read by Leigh Mytton

In the early 18th Century - Diana Souhami explains - there was "a readership for first hand accounts of plundering voyages to exotic far-off places across dangerous seas".

For tales of shipwreck and survival. Alexander Selkirk - a rough, tough Scotsman - had experienced it all.

He ran away to sea at 15 and had survived storms, skirmishes and scurvy before he was marooned on an island 6,000 miles from home.

Selkirk's hot temper landed him in trouble with his captain, who abandoned him to the elements. He remained alone on "The Island" for four years and four months.

Selkirk famously became the model for Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked hero and the subject of the first English novel. But his island and Selkirk's were quite different.

Diana Souhami won the Whitbread Biography Prize
This book will have you planning a South American trip
The lyrical first chapter of Souhami's book takes us on a virtual journey across the isle which sustained the Scottish adventurer - from its "bronze green filmy ferns" to its 3,000ft mountain peaks.

The idyllic vision is shattered as the scene shifts to 18th Century London, where an "old pyrateing (sic) dog" is plotting a booty-snatching voyage to South America.

This book is not just about Selkirk's Island. The narrative takes a gritty twist. What follows is a warts-and-all insight of life on the ocean wave.

Selkirk's seedy existence and his abandonment and rescue are examined with wit and irony, making this a fascinating social commentary.

At times, it is hard to believe Selkirk inspired Defoe's pious hero. He settles arguments with his fists (even after he is rescued) and develops an unnatural relationship with the goats that inhabit his island.

He is a bigamist and a liar, but there's no denying the man's diligence and thirst for survival.

Souhami's descriptions of life at sea are harrowing. Many of a 120-strong crew packed in a 25ft living space are not expected to survive.

Their (mostly horrible) deaths are recorded as nonchalantly as the passing of clouds and showers.

Diana Souhami
Souhami's book is extensively researched
The disease-ridden sailors are cruel to foreigners, animals and each other. Souhami peppers her narrative with asides.

They include Giolo - the tattooed prince who was sold to a freak show - the padre who ran off with a negress and the sea lion who avenged the killing of her pup.

The text is supported by a colourful cast: William Dampier, Woodes Rogers, Sophia Bruce, Frances Candis - each with their own amazing tale to tell.

But we return to The Island for our final instalment. In the 21st Century, it nourishes a population of 500.

Its flora and fauna are protected by conservationists. Its name has been changed to Robinson Crusoe Island. It sells Selkirk wall-hangings.

Souhami's extensively-researched book proves that the public's thirst for accounts of "plundering voyages to exotic far-off places" remains as strong today as it did 300 years ago.

It will have you re-reaching for your copy of Robinson Crusoe and planning a trip to south America. If that's not inspirational, I don't know what is.

Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. It won the Whitbread Biography award 2001



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