A beautiful victory at the Booker for tale of gay love in Thatcherite Britain

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The Independent Culture

The jury for the Man Booker Prize for fiction ignored the hottest favourite for years and delighted the bookies last night by making Alan Hollinghurst the £50,000 winner.

The jury for the Man Booker Prize for fiction ignored the hottest favourite for years and delighted the bookies last night by making Alan Hollinghurst the £50,000 winner.

Hollinghurst scooped the most prestigious prize in British literary life for The Line of Beauty, a tale of gay love in Thatcherite Britain, from under the nose of the hotly tipped David Mitchell with his audacious novel, Cloud Atlas.

But sources close to the jury, which deliberated for two hours and 15 minutes, said that both books battled it out with the third heavyweight contender, Colm Toibin's The Master, inspired by the life of the American author Henry James.

Hollinghurst, 50, said he would be grateful for the jury's decision for the rest of his life. "However they reached it I can't imagine. It's very amazing to me that the long, solitary process of writing a novel should lead to a moment like this."

Chris Smith, the former culture secretary, chaired the jury which included Tibor Fischer, the novelist, and Rowan Pelling, former editor of The Erotic Review. Mr Smith said it had been "an incredibly difficult and close decision".

"It has resulted in a winning novel that is exciting, brilliantly written and goes deep under the skin of the Thatcherite Eighties. The search for love, sex and beauty is rarely this exquisitely done."

The Line of Beauty is the story of Nick Guest, a gay post-graduate student who, curiously in the light of the Colm Toibin novel, is studying Henry James. Lodging in the home of an ambitious Conservative MP in Notting Hill, west London, Guest embarks on his first love affair with a young black clerk before moving on to an affair with a beautiful millionaire, which changes his life.

Hollinghurst's work is the answer to a 20-year search by readers of British fiction for two rare and precious creatures. They sought both a great novel about Margaret Thatcher's heyday and the rip-roaring climate of the Eighties, and an equally great novel about the confident but brittle gay culture of the age, and the desolating impact that Aids had on it. When Hollinghurst published The Line of Beauty this March, the critics whooped as if in response to a massive lottery win. At a stroke, Hollinghurst seemed to have captured and delivered both elusive beasts.

From that moment Hollinghurst looked a formidable competitor for the major literary awards this year. Perhaps it took last night's hard-fought contest for the Man Booker Prize to prove just how formidable The Line of Beauty is.

In general, the Booker judges seldom warm to sequels or successes. Yet, in a thematic as well as a historical sense, The Line of Beauty picks up where Hollinghurst left off in The Swimming Pool Library, his pioneeringly frank first novel published in 1987.

Like the novels of Henry James, The Line of Beauty mingles passion with refinement, grace with grit. After all The Line of Beauty itself refers not merely to neo-classical theories of art but to the Eighties pleasures of cocaine. Unlike James, this novel's presiding genius, however, Hollinghurst can bring the ecstasy and misery of the sexual life into full view rather than leaving it discreetly hidden. In fact, he does so sparingly. The early bliss of untethered gay desire gradually falls into the shadow of actual illness and expected death.

Neither the sexual investigation nor the social commentary in this novel would matter if its glorious high style failed to carry them. Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, has said that he "can't think of anybody who writes better line by line'' than Hollinghurst, in a prose that sounds "weighed, scrupulous, thrilling and charged''. These are the lines of beauty that matter most. They explain why this novel may still be read with fascination and delight when the passage of time has buried the politicians and the pestilences that first shaped its composition.

Hollinghurst was born in Stroud, Gloucestershire, in 1954, the son of a bank manager who encouraged a passionate love of classical music which informs his work.

After Oxford, he became the deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement and was long a critic before the publication of his first novel, which won the Somerset Maugham Award. He was one of Granta magazine's prestigious list of best young British novelists in 1993.

Success is likely to transform Hollinghurst's sales. The 2002 winner, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, sold another 250,000 copies in the past year, and last year's victor, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, sold £500,000 worth of copies in Britain.

THE WINNING BOOK

Extract from "The Line of Beauty"

Peter Crowther's book on the election was already in the shops. It was called Landslide!, and the witty assistant at Dillon's had arranged the window in a scaled-down version of that natural disaster. The pale-gilt image of the triumphant Prime Minister rushed towards the customer in a gleaming slippage. Nick stopped in the street, and then went in to look at a copy. He had met Peter Crowther once, and heard him described as a hack and also as a 'mordant analyst': his faint smile, as he flicked through the pages, concealed his uncertainty as to which account was nearer the truth. There was clearly something hacklike in the speed of publication, only two months after the event; and in the actual writing, of course. The book's mordancy seemed to be reserved for the efforts of the Opposition. Nick looked carefully at the photographs, but only one of them had Gerald in it; a group picture of 'The 101 New Tory MPs', in which he'd been clever enough, or quick enough, to get into the front row.

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