Sabina Murray, a writer in residence at a private high school in Massachusetts, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction yesterday. Her book "The Caprices" is a collection of short stories set in the Pacific islands in World War II. She will receive $15,000 and a moment in the literary spotlight.
The slender volume was very well received. "In this sobering book," a reviewer wrote in The Washington Post, Murray "turns the bombed-out and broken setting of World War II into a theater for humankind, where both weakness and grace are writ large."
And a New York Times critic wrote: "At her most effective, Murray writes stories of fierce intensity, stories that are evocative, distinct and haunting."
The judges -- writers Gail Godwin, Valerie Martin and Alexs Pate -- pored over more than 350 works of fiction from 90 publishing houses to find five finalists. The runners-up were Peter Cameron for "The City of Your Final Destination," William Kennedy for "Roscoe," Victor LaValle for "The Ecstatic" and Gilbert Sorrentino for "Little Casino." Each receives $5,000.
Reached yesterday at Phillips Academy in Andover -- where she's in the final year of a three-year appointment -- Murray said that the stories welled up from her past. "My mother is Filipino," she explained. "She was a child during the Japanese occupation of Manila. After the war, her father and brother had been put in a camp for civilians. They were never heard from again."
Wondering whatever became of her grandfather, Murray began writing stories, she said, that essentially ask "What is war?" and "Who are the people who suffer in war?"
Of Murray's collection, Pate said: "I think it's a really excellent book. It's intense . . . It remarks on history but I think it also has a lot of relevance today about the lingering effects of war. It's a very powerful statement."
Wife of poet John Hennessy and mother of two children, Murray, 34, will soon be teaching in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
She's just finished her second novel, "A Carnivore's Inquiry"; her first was "Slow Burn" from 1990.
The Washington-based PEN/Faulkner Foundation has been handing out literary awards since 1981. Murray and all the authors will be feted at a black-tie ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library on May 17.