Well, no one saw that coming.
In 1992, when the prize was shared between Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, the rules of the Booker Prize were changed so that a joint award could never happen again. It just has. Peter Florence and his jury decided, in his words, that “Laws are immutable. Rules are adaptable to circumstances.” They have adapted the rules in these circumstances to award the prize to two novelists – Margaret Atwood for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other.
Florence said his jury had not wanted to jettison any of the longlisted titles and were distraught at having to whittle down the shortlist. In the end they decided the only way they could all be happy was to choose Atwood and Evaristo. When told by Gaby Wood, the prize’s literary director, that the rules prohibited such a compromise, they went back and discussed the books some more. Nothing doing. They asked again and received the same firm “No”. Eventually, after five hours of discussions and calls to Helena Kennedy, the chair of the trustees who set the rules, they went ahead anyway. “We tried voting,” said Florence, “and it didn’t work – a metaphor for our times. We couldn’t separate them. We wanted both.” When pressed, Florence put it this way: “It was the collective will of the jury to say that we could not abide by the rules.”
Split decisions have happened twice before, with Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton in 1974 and with Unsworth-Ondaatje, but the rule change to one winner only has proved ineffective. According to Wood, the judges “have actively chosen to break the rules. They haven’t though set a precedent.” Asked if she supported the decision, Wood noted diplomatically, “I support the means by which they made the decision.”
Once the shock subsides, Florence was adamant that the judges’ reasons will be clear. “I hope the winning authors will accept this as a mark of respect,” he said. “All literary finesse goes towards whether the authors have something to say, and these two do.” Evaristo’s book, he said, “has something magical about its cast of 12 women, mostly black, mostly British, and representative of many women today who haven’t been represented in contemporary British literature.” Atwood’s book repeated, the judges felt, “the extraordinary power of her Gilead, created 30 years ago”. The book “looks more urgent than ever before. It is what resistance looks like.”
The prize money will be split in half, £25,000 each, and Atwood now becomes just the fourth novelist to win the prize twice, after J.M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel. For good measure, at 79, she also becomes the oldest winner in the prize’s history. For Evaristo, an established (Girl, Woman, Other is her eighth novel), respected but slightly under the radar novelist in terms of the wider public, this will be life and career changing. She is also the first black woman to win the prize.
This year the judges read 151 novels and the fact that they found it impossible to separate just two of them was, said Wood, “A rebellious gesture but a generous one.” Florence admitted that “You might call me a very bad chair of judges but the jury is a brilliant collection of individuals and we felt that the decision was a celebration.” He described the moment they collectively decided to flout the rules as “a moment of joy”.
So this first iteration of the new Booker age certainly starts in a maelstrom of controversy but once the fuss dies down the two books, says Florence, will be seen for what they are: “Adventurous works that address the world today and give insights into it. They resonate with us today and they will continue to resonate.”
Purchase The Testaments here.
Read my review of The Testaments here.
Purchase Girl, Woman, Other here.