The Booker Prize, generally accepted as the world's premier award for a single work of fiction, was won last night by The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker.
The announcement, made at Guildhall in London by George Walden MP, chairman of the Booker judges, shocked many fans and devotees of Salman Rushdie, whose fifth novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, was the bookies' favourite to win the pounds 20,000 prize at odds of 4-5. The judges voted Ms Barker the winner by four to one.
Born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943, and now living in Durham, Pat Barker is something of an unknown quantity on the metropolitan literary circuit - she always feels "relieved", she says, to get back to her northern roots - but her novels have been steadily growing in reputation since 1991, when she published Regeneration, the first of a trilogy about the First World War, of which The Eye in the Door (1993) was the second, and the new Booker winner the third.
Ms Barker was brought up mostly by her grandmother, in a working-class family. She went on to study history at theLondon School of Economics, became a teacher, and began writing in her mid-20s.
After finishing several unpublished novels, she was advised by Angela Carter to write about her own northern background. The result was Union Street, her prize-winning debut, a series of stories about working-class life which won the Fawcett Prize, was reviewed with torrential acclaim - and was bizarrely transformed by Hollywood into the love-and-dyslexia movie Stanley and Iris, starring Jane Fonda and Robert de Niro.
Her later books were Blow Your House Down (1984), The Century's Daughter (1986) a wildly ambitious attempt to relate one woman's experience through the whole of the twentieth century, and The Man Who Wasn't There in 1989.
But it was when she abandoned the raw material and idiom of grittily impoverished northern lives to delve into the historical archives of the Craiglockhart War Hospital outside Edinburgh, that she discovered a densely suggestive and poignant metaphor for the human condition: the fragmentation of the personality brought about by the condition of war, that simultaneously fragments human society.
The Ghost Road, like the rest of the trilogy, explores the trauma of soldiers in the First World War through the psychological investigations of a real-life anthropologist and military shrink called William Rivers, and the swathe cut through Edwardian society by one of his patients, the bisexual class warrior Billy Prior.
Historical figures, such as Wilfred Owen and Lewis Carroll, turn up in the narrative - Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves featured as main characters in the earlier books - confronting their own fears of extinction and nullity.
"In Sassoon and Owen," Barker said in an interview with Anthony Quinn in September, "you have this dichotomy - Sassoon couldn't resolve it, Owen didn't live long enough to try - which is that they both denigrated war and yet implicit in almost every line of their poetry is the idea that this was a valuable experience. Both were given their voice by something they hated".
It should be said that, despite the subject matter, The Ghost Road is neither depressing nor glum. It is written in a breezily amusing, sometimes seemingly heartless style, is often funny, and, in the voracious life- force of Billy Prior, has a sparky sexiness. The dialogue is brightly modern, sprinkled with anachronisms like "panic attack" and "conspiracy theory", and a sub-plot about Rivers's anthropological researches among Melanesian natives offers an eloquent counterbalance to this glittering story of civilisation falling apart.
It is a worthy winner. In a review, the Times Literary Supplement said: "With the other two volumes of the trilogy, it forms one of the richest and most rewarding works of fiction of recent times."
The prize was awarded before the usual glittering throng of publishers, authors, journalists, literary agents and the corporate guests of Booker plc.
Winners of the prize can expect to sell vast numbers of their novel - somewhere between 50,000 and 400,000 copies in hardback and perhaps double that figure in paperback.
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