Anne Enright takes the Booker

Outsider beats favourites to scoop prize for tale of dysfunctional family life set in Ireland

Against all the odds, and seeing off competition from favourites Ian McEwan and Lloyd Jones, rank outsider Anne Enright was tonight awarded the Man Booker prize for her "powerful, uncomfortable and even at times angry book" The Gathering.

Howard Davies, chair of the panel, described it as "an unflinching look at a grieving family in tough and striking language". No picnic, it was described by the Observer's critic as "a story of family dysfunction, made distinctive by an exhilarating bleakness of tone". Davies said: "It's accessible. It's somewhat bitter - but it's perfectly accessible. People will be pretty excited by it when they read it."

Enright herself told Radio 4's Today programme this morning: "When people pick up a book they may want something happy that will cheer them up. In that case they shouldn't really pick up my book. It's the intellectual equivalent of a Hollywood weepie".

Enright's victory wins her a total of £52,500, including the £2,500 accorded to each shortlisted writer.

McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Jones's Mister Pip were the novels vying for position as bookies' favourite in the weeks leading up to last night's announcement.

The judging process was, Davies said, "tight". Every book "had its advocate". He described the judges as "a congenial group of people" but not necessarily one from whom consensus easily flowed. Accordingly, as befitted the director of the London School of Economics, he devised what he called an ingenious selection of voting systems: a weighted system, a simple ranking system and single transferable vote. Each confirmed Enright as the winner.

The Gathering is narrated by Veronica, as she prepares for the funeral of Liam, one of her many larger-than-life, unruly siblings. The novel casts back down the generations as Veronica - apparently leading a calm, stable, successful life as a well-off wife and mother - attempts to make sense of her turbulent, fragile history and that of her dysfunctional clan. AL Kennedy, reviewing the book in the Guardian, wrote: "Enright's work is neither mindless nor inhuman; it is clearly the product of a remarkable intelligence, combined with a gift for observation and deduction. She has uncovered the truth that sometimes our great adventures are interior."

A Dubliner - and the second Irish writer in three years to win the prize after John Banville took it in 2005 - Enright studied philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin before working for Ireland's national broadcaster RTE as a producer. These were stressful years and Enright struggled with depression. She has said: "I heartily recommend having a breakdown young: then you make your decisions and get on with it. I see people who are in permanent crisis, like a chronically faulty car. The exhaust is permanently hanging off the back of their life. If the car broke down completely, they'd have to get it fixed. There would be no more messing."

She left her job and began to write; first a well-received collection of stories called The Portable Virgin, then three novels and a work of non-fiction, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, published in 2004.

Disappointed though he will doubtless be, Ian McEwan can at least take comfort from his incredibly healthy sales. On Chesil Beach is far outselling the other books on the shortlist combined (not to mention the surge of sales for Atonement in the wake of Joe Wright's film). Sales figures of the other books, by contrast, exemplify the tough climate for literary fiction in the marketplace - and Enright's book has so far shifted just 3,253 copies. The latest figures from Nielsen BookScan show that the McEwan has sold a total of 120,362; Nicola Barker's Darkmans, 11,097; Mister Pip, 5,170; Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist 4,425, and Indra Sinha's Animal's People 2,589.

This year's judges, chaired by Davies, are poet Wendy Cope, author and journalist Giles Foden, biographer and critic Ruth Scurr, and actor Imogen Stubbs. Last year's Man Booker prize-winner was Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss.

Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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