The literary world was taken by surprise tonight when the Booker Prize for 2019 was awarded to two books focusing on the experiences of women in society: Margaret Atwood's The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other. The two authors will share £50,000 in prize money.
The judges, led by Peter Florence, director of the Hay Literary Festival, have broken the Booker Prize's rules to split the award. At a ceremony in The Guildhall, London, Florence described the winners as "two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come."
The decision came after a five-hour meeting today between Florence and his fellow judges, publisher and editor Liz Calder, novelist, essayist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch and concert pianist, composer and conductor Joanna McGregor.
Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was itself shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was hotly anticipated ahead of publication last month and is the fastest-selling novel of the year in the UK.
For a long time we were going away from Gilead and then we turned around and started heading back toward Gilead, so it did seem pertinent
Florence described the book, which is set in the totalitarian state of Gilead where women are subjugated, as "a savage and beautiful novel that speaks to us today with conviction and power".
In The Irish Times, Sarah Gilmartin praised the novel's "masterclass in storytelling and suspense".
Atwood said that she wrote The Testaments in part to answer readers’ questions about what happened to the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, and also because “for a long time we were going away from Gilead and then we turned around and started heading back toward Gilead, so it did seem pertinent”.
In interviews she has described how events in America since the election of Donald Trump, including new restrictions on abortion in nine US states, helped inform the book. "Everything could come out of the cupboard that had always been there – and out it has come."
Having previously won the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, Atwood becomes the fourth writer to win the award twice, after JM Coetzee, Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel.
Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other tells the stories of 12 (mostly black) women in the UK over the last century, and was described by the judges as “a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood … passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour. There is never a single moment of dullness in this book.”
Evaristo’s novel, which is written in a form of free verse or prose poetry, has been a critics’ favourite since publication in May. It was described in this paper as “one of those books that makes the reader ask ‘Where have you been all my life?’ and rush out for the author’s backlist.”
It was also the top choice in Booker Prize shortlist summaries last weekend in both The Irish Times and the UK Observer.
Evaristo said that the idea for Girl, Woman, Other came to her when she realised, during the writing of her previous novel Mr Loverman, that no one was writing novels about "older black women".
Both winners can expect increased recognition and sales, particularly Evaristo
“Younger writers often write from a younger perspective. If they write from an older perspective, that person is usually mad in some way – they have dementia or something. Younger writers can’t conceive of that person having a happy, healthy life.”
The Booker Prize is Evaristo’s first major literary award, though she has been publishing for more than 20 years, and Girl, Woman, Other is her eighth work of fiction.
Both winners can expect increased recognition and sales, particularly Evaristo. Last year's winner, Milkman by Irish writer Anna Burns, sold almost 10,000 copies in the UK in the week following her win, and has since sold more than 600,000 copies in total.
Atwood and Evaristo topped a shortlist of six books, notable this year for its diversity – the authors were born in six different countries, from Canada to Nigeria – and for being the first shortlist in the 50-year history of the Booker Prize to include no white men.
The other shortlisted authors this year were Lucy Ellmann for Ducks, Newburyport, Chigozie Obioma for An Orchestra of Minorities, Salman Rushdie for Quichotte and Elif Shafak for 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
Rushdie is an old hand at the Booker, having won it in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, as well as being shortlisted on three previous occasions. Midnight’s Children also won the Booker of Bookers in 1993, to mark the prize’s first 25 years, and the public vote for the Best of the Booker in 2008.
Ellmann and Shafak are Booker shortlist debutantes, and Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport has been much talked about this year for its format: almost 1,000 pages written substantially in one sentence. In this paper, Declan O’Driscoll said “This isn’t just one of the outstanding books of 2019, it’s one of the outstanding books of the century, so far.”
Obioma is the youngest and newest novelist on the shortlist, with the rare distinction of having had both his novels shortlisted for the Booker, his debut The Fisherman having been shortlisted in 2015.
On being told that this was definitively against the rules, the judges held a further discussion and chose to flout them
The Booker Prize was launched 50 years ago in 1969 by the Publishers Association and wholesaler Booker McConnell, as a promotional tool for literary fiction and a counterpart to the Prix Goncourt in France.
This is the third time that the Booker Prize has been awarded jointly. In 1974 it was won by Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton for Holiday, and in 1992 by Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient and Barry Unsworth for Sacred Hunger.
In 1993, the rules of the prize were changed to specify that the award could not be split. Following this year's announcement, Gaby Wood, literary director of the prize, said that the judges were "not so much divided as unwilling to jettison any more when they finally got down to two, and asked if they might split the prize between them".
“On being told that this was definitively against the rules, the judges held a further discussion and chose to flout them.”
Like all literary prizes, the Booker has had its fair share of colour and controversy, spats between judges and the occasional grudge. In 1980, Anthony Burgess refused to attend the ceremony unless he could be assured he had won (he lost to William Golding).
In 1981, John Banville, having narrowly missed the shortlist for his novel Kepler, wrote to The Guardian newspaper. He suggested, tongue in cheek, that the prize money be given to him so that he could use the exchange rate surplus to buy copies of the shortlisted books and give them to libraries, so they were "not only bought but also read – surely a unique occurrence".
Banville’s star, in any event, was in the ascendant: he went on to be shortlisted in 1989 for The Book of Evidence, and to win the Booker Prize outright in 2005 for The Sea.
He is one of four Irish winners of the Booker, along with Roddy Doyle in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Anne Enright in 2007 for The Gathering and Anna Burns in 2018 for Milkman.