The 2019 Booker Prize for fiction has been awarded to Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, but only after a dispute between the judges and the foundation that runs the competition.
The jury’s decision was initially rejected by both the Booker Prize foundation’s literary director and chair of trustees because it violated a rule prohibiting joint winners.
Making the announcement at London’s Guildhall, Peter Florence, the chair of this year’s judges, said of the initial refusal to accept the jury’s decision: “We took it as a starting point for further discussion.”
After further, last-minute deliberations on Monday, the jury reached the same unanimous verdict. “It was the collective will of the jury to say ‘we cannot abide by these rules’,” said Mr Florence, who is also director of the Hay Festival.
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize foundation, had to call Helena Kennedy, chair of the trustees, a second time with the same news. On the second call, made in the presence of the jury, Lady Kennedy “accepted that there was nothing they can do”, Ms Wood said.
When asked if she supported the jury’s decision, Ms Wood said only, “I support the means by which they arrived at the decision” — though she also joked that the judges would not get paid. She confirmed that the prize money of £50,000 would be split evenly between the two winning authors.
It is the first time the Booker has been awarded under the sponsorship of Crankstart, a charity founded by venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman.
It is also the first time the award has been split between two works since a rule against dividing the prize was introduced in 1993, after the 1992 jury awarded the Booker jointly to Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. It was also jointly awarded in 1974, to Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton.
The joint winners are arguably very different books by very different authors. Ms Atwood won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin and has had four other works shortlisted for the prize. The Testaments is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, which was shortlisted for the prize in 1986, has never been out of print and which returned to the cultural centre stage in 2017 with the HBO TV adaptation.
Ms Evaristo, a London-based novelist, playwright, poet and essay writer and also professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University London, is the first black woman to win the Booker Prize. Girl, Woman, Other is a genre-stretching work — whole chapters read more like verse than prose. The book speaks to debates about identity politics in the UK, telling the stories of 12 black British women while questioning these and other ‘identifying’ categories, and at times pillorying the excesses and clichés of those who might see themselves as radical progressives.
Mr Florence said of both books: “They’re linguistically inventive, adventurous in all kinds of ways, they address the world today and they create characters that resonate with us and will resonate for a long time”. He denied that one winner would be likely to overshadow the other. “We would like to give equal prominence and respect to both writers.”
Also on the judging panel were Liz Calder, a former editor and publisher of fiction; Afua Hirsch, a writer and broadcaster; Joanna MacGregor, a pianist and composer; and Xiaolu Guo, a novelist and film-maker.
The other shortlisted books were Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, and Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.