In a surprise move, Evaristo and Margaret Atwood will share this year's prize.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 14, 2019 at 07:14 PM EDT

In a shocking and historic decision, the judging panel for the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction has flouted the rules to name two winners: Margaret Atwood, for The Testaments, and Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other.

Evaristo becomes the first black woman to win the Booker Prize since its 1969 inception. Meanwhile Atwood, 79, is the oldest-ever winner of the prize. This also marks Atwood’s second win; her first was in 2000, for The Blind Assassin.

Two winners have shared the prize previously, but this is the first time it’s occurred since the rules were changed in 1993 to explicitly state that only one author could win. In 1974, Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton were jointly awarded the prize, and in 1992, Michael Ondaatje and Barry Unsworth shared the honor. The 2019 winners will share the £50,000 ($63,000) prize money.

“There are rules and the rule says there must be one winner,” said Peter Florence, chair of the 2019 judges, in a video on the Booker Prize’s Twitter account announcing the results. “I think our understanding was that this year of all years there is a context that both these books are heard loudly and gloriously around the world. We wanted to celebrate both of them and didn’t want to give other of them up. Hence we have two winners. Double the joy. Double the reading pleasure. I don’t think either of them sends a message. I think they ask huge questions: How are these people visible in society? How are their stories told? What does resilience look like? What does courage look like in a time of volatility and aggression? And most of all, I think, in a time where lies are everywhere, what do truths look like?”

The Testaments is a long-anticipated sequel to Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and charts the early stages of the nation of Gilead’s downfall. The novel follows three narrators: the sinister Aunt Lydia, a young Gileadian girl who becomes increasingly disenchanted with the country she was raised to worship, and a teenager in Toronto whose family is entrenched in Mayday’s operations.

Atwood previously spoke to EW about the themes of hope laced through the novel, and predicted that she would receive more questions about that subject than the bleaker aspects of the work. “In the ’70s I was getting, ‘Do you hate men?’” she said. “And sometimes a different version: ‘Do you like men?’ Those questions are quite easy to answer… some men. I’m not too keen on Hitler and Stalin, but Albert Schweitzer had some pretty good ideas.” Atwood is the fourth author to win the Booker Prize twice.

Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other is her eighth book of fiction, and it draws on aspects of the African diaspora to tell a story in the voices of 12 different characters, predominantly black women. “Fiction excavates and reimagines our histories; investigates, disrupts, validates and contextualises our societies and subjectivities; exercises our imaginations through flights of fancy, takes the reader on transformational adventures, and probes and presents our motivations, problems and dramas,” Evaristo previously told The Guardian of her novel. “What, then, does it mean to not see yourself reflected in your nation’s stories? This has been the ongoing debate of my professional career as a writer stretching back nearly forty years, and we black British women know, that if we don’t write ourselves into literature, no one else will.”

Evaristo and Atwood beat out four other titles to claim the prize: 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.

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