The judges of this year’s Booker prize have “explicitly flouted” the rules of the august literary award to choose the first joint winners in almost 30 years: Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo.
The chair of judges, Peter Florence, emerged after more than five hours with the jury to reveal that the group of five had been unable to pick a single winner from their shortlist of six. Instead, despite being told repeatedly by the prize’s literary director, Gaby Wood, that they were not allowed to split the £50,000 award, they chose two novels: Atwood’s The Testaments, a follow-up to her dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, and Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which is told in the voices of 12 different characters, mostly black women.
Evaristo’s win makes her the first black woman to win the Booker since it began in 1969 and the first black British author. At 79, Atwood becomes the prize’s oldest winner. The Canadian author previously won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin; she becomes the fourth author to have won the prize twice.
Atwood said after the ceremony at London’s Guildhall: “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.
“I’m not the jury. I have been on a jury that split the prize and I understand the predicament. I get it ... they should have split it 13 ways but unfortunately that’s not how it goes.”
Evaristo said: “I’m just so delighted to have won the prize. Yes, I am sharing it with an amazing writer. 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.”
At a press conference, Evaristo was asked if she would have preferred to win the full £50,000. She said: “What do you think? Yes but I’m happy to share it. That’s the kind of person I am.”
Evaristo said she would put it towards her mortgage; Atwood said she was “too old” and had “too many handbags” to spend it on herself. She said her £25,000 would be donated to the Canadian Indigenous charity Indspire, one she has previously helped with her late friend and First Nations leader Chief Harry St Denis.
When asked about the recent death of her longtime partner, the Canadian author Graeme Gibson, Atwood responded: “Do you think that is in good taste? It is the best of times and it is the worst of times. If you’re really wondering what I am doing here, it is much better for me to be on the road right now, surrounded by lots of people and talking about other things.”
Florence revealed the jury has been put under pressure to have one winner. “Our consensus was that it was our decision to flout the rules and divide this year’s prize to celebrate two winners,” he said. “These are two books we started not wanting to give up and the more we talked about them the more we treasured both of them and wanted them both as winners … We couldn’t separate them.”
The Booker prize has been split twice before: in 1974, by Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton, and in 1992, by Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth. After 1992, the rules were changed to insist that the prize “may not be divided or withheld”.
“We tried voting, that didn’t work,” said Florence. “There’s a metaphor for our times.”
After more than three hours of discussions, the jury asked Wood if they could split the prize. They were told no. They went back into discussions for another hour, to come up with the same, unanimous choice. Wood spoke to the chair of trustees, Helena Kennedy, who also insisted on the rules being kept. The jury came back a third time, announcing with what Florence said was “absolute consensus”, that they had decided to ignore the rules.
“We spent a good hour and a half agonising over how to resolve the issue to the jurors’ satisfaction, and the eventual decision that was taken was a moment of joy for all of us,” said Florence. “We were trying to accommodate the rules that were given to us. How do you equably and fairly resolve something that seems irresolvable? You find a way of changing the game.”
Asked if she supported the decision, Wood said: “It is an explicit flouting of the rules and they all understood that. It was a rebellious gesture but it was … a generous one.”
She made clear that the rules would not be changed in future – and that this year’s jury was not the first to ask to split the prize.
Florence said: “I hope both winning authors will accept this as a mark of respect to two books.”
The chair of judges, who was joined on the judging panel by Liz Calder, Xiaolu Guo, Afua Hirsch and Joanna MacGregor, said that The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other were “fully engaged novels, they are both linguistically inventive, they are adventurous in all kinds of ways. They address the world today and give us insights into it and create characters who resonate with us, and will resonate with us for ages”.
Evaristo’s novel, he said, was “groundbreaking”, with “something utterly magnificent about the full cast of characters”; the novelist set out to write in a polyphonic series of voices as a “strategy against invisibility”, because “we black British women know that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will”. Atwood’s novel, meanwhile, is “more politically urgent than ever before”.
“These are big ambitious books,” said Florence. “One of the learnings I’ve had is that all the literary finesse, the elegance of language, the brilliance of structure, all these go to serve whether or not the author has something really valuable to say. These books both have something urgent to say and they also happen to be wonderfully compelling page-turning thrillers, which I think can speak to the most literary audience, as well as to readers who are only reading one book, or in this case two books, a year.”
The two novels beat four other titles to the win: Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World and Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
“Nobody was taking this lightly but equally there was a sense of perspective – we are judging a book prize, and this is a celebration of great literature,” said Florence. “There are opportunities to be joyful here.”