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Drama, outside hard covers

Drama, outside hard covers

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo are probably still in shock at being named joint winners of The 2019 Booker Prize. Certainly many of those who play close attention to the prize or who attended the ceremony are still reeling at the judges’ flouting of the rules. There was an audible gasp in the Guildhall when the chair of judges, Peter Florence, announced, after a theatrical pause, that he and his fellows had been unable to separate the two writers and, unwilling to jettison one of them, were ripping up the rule book instead.

Both writers, it should be said, were hugely popular winners and were gracious in the extreme when sharing a platform. Atwood noted that this was a victory for women with “curly hair” while Evaristo was thrilled to be sharing the prize with “the legend that is Margaret Atwood”. Atwood indeed seemed a little sheepish at becoming only the fourth novelist to win the prize twice: “I don’t need the attention,” she said. “As a good Canadian, we don’t do celebrity – it’s in bad taste.” Atwood has lived with celebrity for many years; Evaristo, on the other hand, will have to learn to ignore matters of taste and get used to it. Her life will change very fast.

For a taste of the atmosphere at what was by any lights a dramatic evening, the latest Booker Prize podcast is a good place to start. On it Joe Haddow talks to Bernardine Evaristo, as well as the shortlisted authors Salman Rushdie and Chigozie Obioma, at the pre-announcement event at the Southbank Centre the night before the winners were revealed. While featuring at the Guildhall reception itself, are the 2004 Man Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst and the actress Elizabeth McGovern who took a break from Downton Abbey duties to read from two of the shortlisted books at the prize dinner.

Before the winners were revealed, last year’s winner, Anna Burns, made some charming introductory remarks that stressed what the prize has meant to her over the past year. She noted that the characters in Milkman didn’t care about their creator’s “health, finances, or well-being” but she did and her win transformed her finances while the affirmation that she was indeed a proper writer was wonderful boost to her well-being. The greatest benefit and the real life changer, however, was nothing obvious. The win, she revealed, had brought about “a renewal of connections with my family” after years of estrangement. “I got to meet a new generation of my family for the first time, and I can’t thank the Man Booker-stroke-Booker Prize enough.”

Another delightful moment came when Lucy Ellmann, shortlisted for Ducks, Newburyport, went on stage to receive (as all the shortlistees did) a bound copy of her book. In the paperback format as published, her 1,030-pager is big enough but when bound between hard covers and placed in a presentation box poor Ellmann looked as if she were trying to carry a breeze-block off stage.

In justifying why the judges felt it was their duty to break the Booker Prize rules, Peter Florence came up with a definition that might stretch even Lady Hale and her fellow Supreme Court judges. “Laws are immutable,” said Florence. “Rules are adaptable to circumstances.”

Afua Hirsch, one of the panel, noted after the event that “We refused to comply. We chose two winners. The outcome would always be imperfect, because it was an impossible task. I’m proud of our decision.” However, since 1992 when the rules were changed to stipulate there could only be a single winner, there have been 130 different judges of the prize who, despite the strongest of feelings and some tears and tantrums along the way, found the task to be nigh-on but not quite impossible. When the fuss dies down though the conversation can refocus on The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other, two books of the highest quality that deserve their place in the sun.

More congratulations are in order, this time to Ismail Kadare, the first to win The Man Booker International Prize in 2005, who has also just won the 2020 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Submissions closed two weeks back for The International Booker Prize and the winner will be announced in May 2020.