|RIchard Flanagan the Man Booker Prize ceremony|
The first Man Booker prize to allow American nominees was on Tuesday night won by an Australian, with Richard Flanagan triumphing for a “magnificent novel of love and war” that tells the harrowing stories of prisoners and captors on the Burma railway.
Flanagan won for The Narrow Road to the Deep North as he became the third Australian to win the prize, following on from Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey.
He instinctively hugged the Duchess of Cornwall as he received the award at a black tie dinner in London.
“In Australia the Man Booker prize is sometimes seen as something of a chicken raffle,” he joked. “I just didn’t expect to end up the chicken.”
The novel is an incredibly personal book for Flanagan, whose father was a survivor of Japan’s campaign to build the railway. He died aged 98 on the day Flanagan emailed his final draft to his publisher.
“I grew up, as did my five siblings, as children of the Death Railway,” Flanagan said. “We carried many incommunicable things and I realised at a certain point … that I would have to write this book.”
Over 12 years he wrote five drafts that he deemed deficient and burned, but he was intent on finishing before his father died.
He stressed that the novel was not his father’s story, although he had asked him lots of questions – “the nature of mud, the smell of rotting shin bone when a tropical ulcer has opened up, what sour rice tasted like for breakfast”.
He added: “In the end my father never asked me what the story was, he trusted me to write a book that might be true.”
Flanagan wins £50,000, money he said would be spent on “life”, as he was not wealthy and had even, 18 months ago, considered trying to get work in the mines of northern Australia because he had spent so long on one book.
“This prize money means I can continue to be a writer,” said Flanagan, who also worked as one of the screenwriters on Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia.
The philosopher AC Grayling, who chaired the judges, called his book “an absolutely superb novel, a really outstanding work of literature”.
At its heart, the book tells the excoriating, horrific story of what it was like to be a prisoner of war forced to work on what has become known as the Death Railway between Thailand and Burma.
But the novel is about much more than that, said Grayling. “It is not really a war novel, it is not about people shooting one another and bombs going off, it is much more about people, their experience and their relationships. What’s interesting about it is that it is very nuanced, as if everyone on the Burma railway, both sides of the story, were victims.”
It is Flanagan’s sixth novel, and although he was many people’s tip to win, he was not the bookmakers’ favourite. William Hill made him the 6/1 outsider earlier on Tuesday.
The favourites had been the three British novelists, Howard Jacobson, Ali Smith and Neel Mukherjee, while the two Americans – Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler – were not given too much of a chance by pundits.
Grayling said the process of reading and then re-reading twice exposed “the genuine quality in a book”.
He added: “The best and worst of judging books is when you come across one that kicks you so hard you can’t pick up the next one on the pile for a couple of days, it delays you but you know you’ve met something extraordinary. That’s what happened in the case of this book.”
The book’s main narrative is set in the second world war but Grayling said it also had a strong contemporary resonance given conflicts around the world.
“With cinema and reporting we are all the more aware of the kind of trauma that people experience when they have been engaged as soldiers or bystanders in these situations,” Grayling said. “This depiction is timeless, it is not just about the second world war, it is about any war and it is about the effect on a human being.”
It is the 46th year of the prize but the first one to allow any novel published in English to be entered.
The change has not been universally welcomed, with many fearing the award might become dominated by American authors. On Sunday, Flanagan’s countryman Carey (twice a winner, for Oscar & Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang) criticised the move, saying it was “unimaginable” that America’s top literary prizes, such as the Pulitzer, would allow British and Australian authors to be nominated.
Carey, who had backed Flanagan to win, believes the “particular cultural flavour” of what was a prize for Commonwealth and Irish writers will now be lost.
There is little prospect of the decision being changed and Grayling, on the side of allowing Americans in, said he hoped the debate could now be put to bed. “Neither the long nor the shortlist was overwhelmed by them [Americans],” he said.
Because of the rule changes the judging panel was increased from five to six and Grayling did use his casting vote once in the nearly three-hour judging meeting, but not for final vote, said a Man Booker spokeswoman. The other judges were the academics Jonathan Bate and Sarah Churchwell, the neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, the writer and journalist Erica Wagner and former director of literature at the British Council, Alastair Niven.
Flanagan, one of five authors on the shortlist from the Penguin Random House publishing stable, can look forward to a dramatic increase in sales.
Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, admitted he had been rooting for him. “It’s one of the truly great winners of the prize, one that will be widely read not least because it’s impossible to lay aside completely and forget.”
The win be great news for one literary punter who, Ladbrokes revealed last month, visited 13 branches laying bets on Flanagan to win.