Canadian author Margaret Atwood and British writer Bernardine Evaristo were jointly awarded the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction on Monday night in London’s Guildhall. Evaristo is the first black woman to get the award, while Atwood is a second-time winner as well as the oldest person to get it at 79 years of age.
The judges went against the rules to give the award to two books – Atwood’s The Testaments and Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. They will share the £50,000 prize money. The Booker Prize has been jointly awarded only twice before, to Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton in 1974, and to Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth in 1992. The next year, in 1993, the rules were changed and only one author could win.
Explaining the decision, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation Gaby Wood said the Booker Prize judges discussed all the short-listed books over five hours but found it impossible to single out a winner. “They 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,” Wood said. “On being told that it was definitively against the rules, the judges held a further discussion and chose to flout them. They left the judging room happy and proud, their twin winners gesturing towards the six they would have wanted, had it been possible to split the prize any further.”
The other shortlisted works were Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, and Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. The jury comprised of Peter Florence (chair), Afua Hirsch, Liz Calder, Xiaolu Guo and Joanna MacGregor.
The Testaments is set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, which was based in a dystopian future where a totalitarian state named Gilead had overthrown the United States government and held women in subjugation, controlling all aspects of their life, especially their reproductive rights. “It is a savage and beautiful novel that speaks to us today with conviction and power,” the judges said. “The bar is set unusually high for Atwood. She soars.”
Girl, Woman, Other follows the story of 12 characters, most of them black British women, and their lives and relationships across the years. The judges said this was “a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood” and called it an impressive, fierce novel. “Her [Evaristo’s] style is passionate, razor-sharp, brimming with energy and humour,” the judges added. “There is never a single moment of dullness in this book and the pace does not allow you to turn away from its momentum. The language wraps the reader by force, with the quality of oral traditions and poetry.”
After the award ceremony in London, Atwood said: “It would have been quite embarrassing for a person of my age and stage to have won the whole thing and thereby hinder a person in an earlier stage of their career from going through that door. I really would have been embarrassed, trust me on that.”
Evaristo said she was delighted, according to The Guardian. “Yes, I am sharing it with an amazing writer,” she said. “But I am not thinking about sharing it, I am thinking about the fact that I am here and that’s an incredible thing considering what the prize has meant to me and my literary life, and the fact that it felt so unattainable for decades.”
While the British author said she will put her prize money towards mortgage, the Canadian author said she would donate it to charity.
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