In a surprise move, the 2019 Booker Prize jury announced two winners of the coveted fiction award: Canadian writer Margaret Atwood for “The Testaments” and British author Bernardine Evaristo for “Girl, Woman, Other.” Evaristo became the first Black woman to win the Booker.
The prize, which comes with an award of 50,000 pounds ($ 83,000) will be split between the two women. The winners were announced at a gala ceremony in London’s Guildhall on Monday.
The Booker Prize has been jointly awarded twice before, to Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton in 1974, and to Canada’s Michael Ondaatje (for “The English Patient”) and English writer Barry Unsworth in 1992. In 1993, the rules were changed so that only one author could win the prize. This is the first time since then that two authors have been announced as joint winners.
Despite the rule change, the lead judge, Peter Florence, said: “Our consensus was that it was our decision to flout the rules and divide this year’s prize to celebrate two winners. These are two books we started not wanting to give up and the more we talked about them the more we treasured both of them and wanted them both as winners … We couldn’t separate them.”
The Booker Prize admitted the judges did not follow the rules. A release sent out after the award announcement said: “Breaking the Booker Prize rules, the judges have split the prize between two authors.”
“I was very surprised by this win and I am delighted to be sharing the prize with Bernardine Evaristo, author of ‘Girl, Woman, Other,’” Atwood said in a statement released by her publisher, McClelland & Stewart. “This is a historic win as Bernardine is the first Black female winner of the Booker Prize. Prizes such as this open doors not only for writers but also for readers and I hope that many more readers will become acquainted with Bernardine’s inspiring work. I look forward to welcoming Bernardine to Canada.”
Atwood’s “The Testaments” — the highly anticipated followup to her wildly popular novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” — had been the bookmakers’ favourite to take this year’s prize. It was her second Booker win, the first being in 2000 for “The Blind Assassin.” Atwood appeared on the Booker short list in 1986 for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in 1989 for “Cat’s Eye,” in 1996 for “Alias Grace” and in 2003 for “Oryx and Crake.” At 79, Atwood is the prize’s oldest winner.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is Evaristo’s eighth book of fiction, which she has produced alongside essays, drama and writing for BBC radio. Evaristo drew on aspects of the African diaspora, past, present, real and imagined, to inform the book. It follows the lives and struggles of 12 very different characters. Mostly women, Black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.
The short list was announced on Sept. 3, a week before “The Testaments” was officially released to the public. When the long list was announced in July, the Booker Prize judges were unable to comment on their choice, saying: “Spoiler discretion and a ferocious non-disclosure agreement prevent any description of who, how, why and even where. So this: it’s terrifying and exhilarating.”
Atwood, whose global popularity has grown with the award-winning TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, was undertaking a high-profile book tour when her longtime partner, author Graeme Gibson, died unexpectedly in London last month at age 85.
The other title with wide Canadian interest was Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport,” which was published in North America by small press Biblioasis in Windsor, Ont., after being turned down by other publishers. In the U.K., another small publisher, Galley Press, accepted it after Ellman’s usual publisher, Bloomsbury, also turned it down. It’s a challenging, 1,020-page book that is told mostly in one long sentence. Reviewers fell in love with both the book and its narrator, an Ohio housewife who shares her inner thoughts about life in Trump’s America. Interestingly, the longest Booker-winning novel to date is “The Luminaries” by London, Ont.-born Eleanor Catton, in 2013. At 832 pages, the novel also won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Also on the list of Booker finalists this year were British-Turkish author Elif Shafak for “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World,” about a prostitute left for dead who, in the last minutes of her life, recalls an existence of horrifying brutality and exploitation, but also of beauty and grace; previous winner and multiple nominee Salman Rushdie for “Quichotte,” a modern-day retelling of “Don Quixote”; and Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma for “An Orchestra of Minorities.”
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The short list of six was selected from 151 titles submitted to the Booker Prize, which was open to books by authors of any nationality writing in English, and which were published in the U.K. or Ireland between Oct. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2019.
The Booker Prize, which was previously restricted to British, Irish and Commonwealth authors, was first awarded in 1969. It has undergone several name and sponsorship changes throughout its history and is currently supported by the charitable foundation Crankstart.
Correction (Oct. 14): This article has been updated from a previous version that misstated the year when “Alias Grace” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was 1996. Author Lucy Ellmann’s surname was also misspelled.