Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and Nigerian-British author Bernardine Evaristo have split the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction after the judging panel ripped up the rulebook and refused to name just one winner for the prestigious literature award.
Chairman Peter Florence said the five judges simply couldn't choose between Atwood's dystopian thriller The Testaments and Evaristo's kaleidoscope of black women's stories Girl, Woman, Other.
Partly inspired by the environmental protesters of 'Extinction Rebellion', who were demonstrating near the prize ceremony venue in London's financial district, Florence said the judges refused to back down when told the rules prohibit more than one winner.
"Our consensus was that it was our decision to flout the rules," he said. "Laws are inviolable and rules are adaptable to the circumstance."
Prize organisers didn't see it that way. Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, said prize trustees repeatedly told the judges they couldn't have two winners, but they "essentially staged a sit-in in the judging room" as deliberations dragged on for five hours.
Wood insisted the decision "doesn't set a precedent". And both Atwood and Evaristo will have to split the £50,000 (RM260,000) Booker Prize purse.
Florence said both of the winning books "address the world today and give us insights into it and create characters that resonate with us". He added, "They also happen to be wonderfully compelling page-turning thrillers," he added.
Atwood, who won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin, had been the favourite to win again with her follow-up to 1985's The Handmaid's Tale. Like the first book, now a hit TV series, The Testaments is set in Gilead, a theocratic republic taken root in the US where women are forced to bear children for powerful men.
Florence, founder of the Hay Literary Festival, said Atwood's novel "does massively more" than just continue the story started in The Handmaid's Tale.
"It's beautiful in its depth and exploration of the world of Gilead," he said. "It might have looked like science fiction back in the day. Now it looks more politically urgent than ever before."
Atwood, 79, is the oldest-ever Booker Prize winner. Meanwhile, Evaristo, who is of Anglo-Nigerian heritage, is the first black woman to take the award. She has published seven books but is less known than her co-winner.
Florence said he wasn't worried that Evaristo, 60, would be overlooked as people focused on Atwood. He said that "there's something utterly magical" about the 12 characters from many walks of life who narrate Girl, Woman, Other.
"They give a wonderful spectrum of black British women today," he added. "In that sense this book is groundbreaking – and I hope encouraging and inspiring to the rest of the publishing industry." Florence also said that both books "have urgent things to say".
He told reporters: "They happen to be wonderfully compelling, page-turning thrillers, which can speak to the most literary audience, to readers who maybe are only reading one, or in this case I hope two books a year, and can speak at different levels to all sorts of different readerships. So in that sense they are, I hope and believe, really valuable Booker Prize winners."
Founded in 1969, the Booker Prize for Fiction is open to English-language authors from around the world. It has been split between two winners twice before, most recently in 1992, when Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger shared the trophy.
The rules were changed after that to stipulate there can only be one winner each year.
Judges chose the two winners from a six-book shortlist that included British-Turkish author Elif Shafak's Istanbul-set 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World; US-British writer Lucy Ellmann's stream-of-consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport; India-born British writer Salman Rushdie's modern-day Don Quixote story, Quichotte; and An Orchestra Of Minorities, a saga of love and exile by Nigeria's Chigozie Obioma.
The prize, which often delivers a big boost in sales and profile to the winner, was sponsored for 18 years by British investment firm Man Group and was known as the Man Booker Prize. This year it reverted to its original name under a new sponsor: The Crankstart Foundation, founded by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife, writer Harriet Heyman. – AP