Sally J Morgan has won the Portico prize for her debut novel, which was inspired by her experience of being offered a lift by the serial killers Fred and Rosemary West.
Morgan’s Toto Among the Murderers, set in Leeds and Sheffield in the 1970s, follows the lives of Jude – known to her friends as Toto – and other women as violence moves closer, and the Wests stalk the country. It beat titles including Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies and Jenn Ashworth’s Ghosted to the £10,000 Portico prize, which goes to outstanding writing “that best evokes the spirit of the north of England”.
Chair of judges Gary Younge said that Toto Among the Murderers “vividly evokes a period in recent history with themes that carry clear, if painful echoes, to today – a time when women in the north, in particular, lived in mortal fear of sexual violence made explicit by daily headlines about mass murderers targeting vulnerable women”.
Younge and his fellow judges were in “broad agreement” that it should take the award, he said. “What comes through is the determination of Toto, the main character, to refuse to allow fear to define her as she lives a life of reckless adventure, longing and love,” he said.
Morgan has previously spoken about how an experience in her 20s, when she was offered a lift by the Wests, eventually resulted in the novel. “I needed a lift. They stopped and offered me one. But when I looked into Fred West’s eyes, his eyes were full of cruelty. It was like a physical assault that propelled me away from the car,” she wrote in the Guardian. “The sense of being someone’s prey has haunted me. So much so, that years after this encounter, I wrote a novel about trying to survive in a world of predators.”
Morgan grew up in Yorkshire and now lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand. The north of England, she said after winning the Portico prize, holds “a big place” in her heart. “I love to write about place, and I wanted to write about a place and a time and stories that I felt were being neglected and in danger of being lost. So, to have [Toto Among the Murderers] recognised in this way is enormously affirming,” she said.
The award was established in 1985 by The Portico Library in Manchester to “celebrate the strong regional and literary identity of the north” and raise awareness about its historical, cultural and literary heritage. Previous winners include Jessica Andrews, Benjamin Myers and Sarah Hall.