It is only the second dead heat in the Booker Prize's 24-year history. In 1974 Nadine Gordimer (The Conservationist) and Stanley Middleton (Holiday) split the pounds 5,000 prize money.
The biographer Victoria Glendinning, chairman of the judges, said: 'Ever since the original shortlist there have been powerful arguments about all six books. All were strongly in play for much of the meeting. The result had to reflect the passionate feeling for each of these two books.' That is a diplomatic description of a two- hour meeting that was, by all accounts, 'pretty bloody'. Judges backing the two main contenders were determined not to give way.
Since the 1974 decision, Booker rules have dissuaded judges from not making up their collective mind.
Ondaatje's The English Patient, a war-torn memoir set in an Italian villa, was the bookmakers' favourite, but Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, a stirring saga about the moral dilemmas of the 18th-century slave trade, was tipped by many critics.
Unsworth was brought up on Teesside, but has lived and worked in Cornwall, Greece, Turkey and Finland. His novel Pascali's Island was shortlisted in 1986. Ondaatje is Sri-Lankan born and lives in Toronto. The other contenders were: Serenity House by Christopher Hope, The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, Black Dogs by Ian McEwan and Daughters of the House by Michele Roberts.
The remaining judges were: John Coldstream, Valentine Cunningham, Mark Lawson and Harriet Harvey-Wood.Reuse content