After 16 years of trying, Banville finally sails away with the Man Booker Prize

But in a year acclaimed as arguably the best in the history of Britain's most prestigious literary prize, John Banville, 59, and his poetic, nostalgic novel, The Sea, was still a surprise winner at last night's ceremony, beating the bookies' hot favourite, Julian Barnes, and fiction's glamorous young star Zadie Smith to the £50,000 cheque.

Sources close to the prize said that, rarely, all six shortlisted books were in the running for at least half of the discussion that lasted more than an hour. In the end, the judges were split between Banville's work and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the only previous Booker winner on the shortlist. The academic and critic John Sutherland, the chairman of the judges, had the casting vote. The judges included Josephine Hart, the novelist, and David Sexton, a literary editor.

The Sea is Banville's 14th novel and tells the story of Max Morden, who after the death of his wife from cancer returns to the Irish seaside resort where he spent a childhood holiday. Banville, a former literary editor of The Irish Times, is the first Irish writer to win the prize, now known as the Man Booker, since Roddy Doyle in 1993. He was born in Wexford and now lives in Dublin.

John Sutherland said it had been a difficult decision. "In an extraordinarily closely contested last round in which the judges felt the level of the shortlisted novels was as high as it can ever have been, they have agreed to award the Man Booker Prize to John Banville's The Sea, a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected. It is an incredibly written piece of work if very melancholy. But if you can't tune into it, the novel won't work for you."

Professor Sutherland said it was a fair decision "though it was by no means a decision by acclamation". He added: "No one would have been dissatisfied had any of the books won."

Accepting the prize, Mr Banville said it was a great pleasure and a great surprise as any one of the books could have won. "I do say to my colleagues, just hang around, it will come. I hung around for many years and it did come."

He admitted it was interesting to see the Guildhall in London where the ceremony took place as when he was shortlisted before he was very drunk. Continuing the theme, he joked he would spend the money on "good works and strong drink".

But his serious point was to thank the Man Booker Prize for promoting interest in good literary fiction. "I think the Booker Prize is good for publishing and good for decent literary publishing which is what we have to treasure." Asked why the Irish wrote such good novels, he said that the English had done many terrible things in Ireland, but they had given it Hibernian English, which was "an extraordinary language". And Ireland was "a completely story-based society", he said.

But he had no idea what the impact of success would be on him. "I don't know, I've never had it."

The critics' view

By Genevieve Roberts

John Banville won the Booker prize last night for writing which, "like some aged liquor, potent and malty, demands to be imbibed in appreciative sips, little by little, lest its sheer power intoxicate and overwhelm". That is the judgement of John Tague, the Independent on Sunday's literary critic.

The author of Shroud and The Book of Evidence, won the prize for his 14th novel, The Sea, a novel that observers say is concerned with loss and memory, identity and language.

WHAT OTHER CRITICS SAID:

"It has been said of the Irish by some English person that we gave them a language and they taught us how to use it. This was true of Wilde, Shaw, Joyce and Beckett, and now Banville."

The Daily Telegraph

"Banville is an aesthete. He is a new Henry Green, who can conjure with the poetry of people and places."

The Independent

"Banville has a talent for sensuous phrasing, and pungent observation of human frailty, but in other areas important for fiction " plot, character, pacing, suspense. The Sea is a crashing disappointment."

The Sunday Times

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