The literary world was shocked today when the Booker Prize for 2019 was granted to two books concentrating on the encounters of women in society: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. The two authors will share £50,000 in prize money.
The chair of judges, Peter Florence, appeared after over five hours with the jury to uncover that the group of five had been not able to pick a solitary victor from their shortlist of six. Despite being told repeatedly by the prize’s literary director, Gaby Wood, that they were not permitted to split the £50,000 grant, they picked 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 distinct characters, generally black women.
This may be the third time that a double award has been given. In fact, the award changed its rules in 1993 to obviously express that “the prize may not be divided or withheld” after the second two-author win.
The Booker Prize has previously been split twice – first between Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton in 1974, and again between Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth in 1992.
The judges, led by Peter Florence, director of the Hay Literary Festival, have disrupted the Booker Prize’s guidelines to split the award. At a ceremony in the Guildhall, London, Florence depicted the winners as “two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come.”
Evaristo’s win makes her the first black woman to win the Booker since it started in 1969 and the first black British writer. At 79, Atwood turns into the prize’s oldest winner. The Canadian writer recently won the Booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin; she becomes the fourth writer to have won the prize twice.
She previously won the Booker Prize for her 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin.
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 tale, Florence stated, was “groundbreaking”, with “something utterly magnificent about the full cast of characters”; the writer set out to write in a polyphonic arrangement of voices as a “strategy against invisibility”, since “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”.
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.