Canadian literary star Margaret Atwood is sharing the Booker Prize with British author Bernardine Evaristo, after the prize jury tossed the rulebook out the window by naming two winners.
Atwood is the fourth author to have won the prize twice and Evaristo is the first black woman to claim the prize since it began in 1969.
At a ceremony in London Monday night, Atwood said she was surprised because she would have considered herself “too elderly” to win, adding that she doesn’t need the attention.
“It would have been quite embarrassing for me, a good Canadian, because we don’t do famous. We think it’s in bad taste,” Atwood said.
She said she prefers to share it with Evaristo, who in turn called Atwood, “a legend.”
Atwood won the award for “The Testaments,” her blockbuster follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” while Evaristo won for “Girl, Woman, Other.”
The joint win means the women will share both the 50,000-pound (C$83,500) prize money and the honour of the Booker, which is considered one of the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world.
The Booker Prize admitted in a press release that the judges were breaking the rules by naming two winners.
It has been jointly awarded twice before, to Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton in 1974 and to Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth in 1992. But the rules were changed in 1993 so that only one author could win the prize.
“Breaking the Booker Prize rules, the judges have split the prize between two authors,” the release says.
This was the sixth Booker nomination for Atwood, who won the prize in 2000 for “The Blind Assassin.”
Industry insiders predict “The Testaments” will be one of the year’s bestsellers. The long-awaited sequel is equal parts political thriller and allegory, set in a world in which women are subjugated as properties of the state.
“Girl, Woman, Other,” is Evaristo’s eighth book of fiction and the prize committee says she drew on aspects of the African diaspora, be it past, present, real or imagined, to inform it.
Peter Florence, chairman of the judges, told the audience at the ceremony that they tried voting Monday and “it didn’t work.”
“We found that there were two novels not that we couldn’t let go of, but that we desperately wanted to win this year’s prize,” Florence said.
The jury loved Evaristo’s novel for the way it gives voice to people, “who are not always articulated,” and makes the invisible visible,” he said.
Of Atwood’s “The Testaments,” he said: “We love this examination of complicity and resilience and resistance, we love the language, we love the storytelling power. We love the ambition.”
But the Toronto-based writer’s moment in the spotlight has been marked by tragedy. About a week after last month’s launch of “The Testaments,” Atwood’s spouse, author and conservationist Graeme Gibson, died at age 85 after battling dementia.
Still, Atwood is trudging ahead with her high-wattage book tour, posing for magazine covers, chatting up talk-show hosts and regaling crowds at events in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
The fanfare speaks to Atwood’s rare status as a writer with as much critical acclaim as she has pop-culture cache.
This is thanks in no small part to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has seen a resurgence in recent years as politics and entertainment have converged to make the 1985 novel seem more relevant than ever.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has been adapted into an Emmy Award-winning TV series, and “The Testaments” is also being developed for the screen.
Meanwhile, the dystopian tale has been hailed as prophecy by some who see modern parallels to the novel’s totalitarian state that treats women as property.
Around the world, activists have donned the red-cloaked uniforms of handmaids – who are forced to bear children for the regime’s rulers – to protest the encroachment of women’s civil and reproductive rights.
There is also a TV adaptation of Atwood’s novel “Alias Grace,” and the series “Wandering Wenda” is based on her alliteration-filled children’s books.
Born in 1939 in Ottawa, Atwood grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec and Toronto.
She has published more than 40 books including poetry and non-fiction, which also include “Cat’s Eye,” “The Edible Woman,” “The Robber Bride” and “MaddAddam.”
Over her distinguished career, Atwood has won many awards, including the 1996 Giller Prize for “Alias Grace” and the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature in the U.S.
She has been named a chevalier in France’s Ordre des arts et des lettres and has received honorary degrees from universities across Canada, and one from Oxford University in England.
Jared Bland, publisher of McClelland & Stewart, said the global success of “The Testaments” is a reminder of how beloved Atwood is around the world.
“This extraordinary honour feels like an entirely fitting way to recognize such a remarkable and urgent work and a writer at the top of her game,” he said in a statement.
Kristin Cochrane, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, said “The Testaments” deserves all the praise and recognition possible.
“For a writer who has so long shaped our collective imagination, this honour could not be more deserved,” she said in a statement.