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Margaret Atwood poses with Bernardine Evaristo after jointly winning the Booker Prize for Fiction 2019 at the Guildhall in London, Britain Oct. 14, 2019.

SIMON DAWSON/Reuters

The prestigious Booker Prize has been rocked by controversy after the panel of judges refused to obey the rules and selected two winners: Margaret Atwood and British author Bernardine Evaristo.

The five jurors defied the direct order of the chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, which oversees the award, who told them to select just one author. Instead, the panel announced the co-winners Monday evening at a gala in London: Ms. Atwood for The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and Ms. Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, a tale of 12 characters, most of whom are black women. The foundation went ahead with the award despite the defiance and said the authors will split the £50,000 ($83,400) prize.

Why Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize win is a crowning achievement for Canlit that feels anticlimactic - in a good way

“We couldn’t separate them when it came to the final moments of the jury process,” said Peter Florence, the director of Britain’s Hay Festival for Literature & the Arts who chaired the panel. “It was the collective will of the jury to say ‘We cannot abide by these rules.’”

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The jury’s decision was “an explicit flouting of the rules,” said Gaby Wood, the literary director of the foundation. However, she said there was nothing the foundation could do. “If somebody makes a sort of revolutionary gesture, you have to say ‘I acknowledge that that’s a gesture.’ You don’t have to say ‘I agree with it or I accept it,’” she said. When asked directly if she agreed with the jury’s actions, Ms. Wood replied, “I support the means by which the judges arrived at the decision.”

Ms. Atwood, who sported a badge of Extinction Rebellion environmental activists during the ceremony, said she was happy to share the award and plans to donate her part of the prize money to a scholarship fund for Indigenous students in Canada. “It would have been quite embarrassing for a person of my age and stage to have won the whole thing and thereby kept a younger person at an early stage of their career from going through that door." She added that she had served on juries that split prizes and understood the dilemma.

Ms. Atwood also spoke about the recent loss of her partner, writer Graeme Gibson, who died last month. “It is the best of times, it is the worst of times,” she said. “If you are really wondering what I am doing here, it’s much better for me to be out on the road right now, surrounded by lots of people and talking about other things.”

At 79, Ms. Atwood is the oldest Booker winner and she took the prize for the second time on Monday. Her novel The Blind Assassin won in 2000 and she has been on the short list six times.

This is only the third time in the Booker’s 50-year history that the prize has been jointly awarded and the rules changed in 1993 after the last co-winners: Canadian Michael Ondaatje and Britain’s Barry Unsworth. At the time, the foundation felt that having two winners detracted from the authors and from then on jurors were told to pick only one winner.

Mr. Florence said the jury spent about three hours on Monday debating the merits of the six shortlisted books before asking Ms. Wood if they could pick Ms. Atwood and Ms. Evaristo. Ms. Wood checked with the foundation’s chair, Helena Kennedy, who said they could not.

The jurors regrouped for another hour and asked again. This time, Ms. Kennedy told them directly to pick one winner. After another 30 minutes of discussion, the jury refused to budge. “It was absolutely the consensus of the jury that this is what we believed best reflected our experience of this year’s submissions,” Mr. Florence said.

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Ms. Wood said the rule won’t be changed and she played down suggestions that the jury’s actions will set a precedent. She added that while jurors often ask to award more than one author, until now they have always ended up agreeing on a single choice. There will be “different books next year and it might not come up,” she said. “I’d be surprised if future juries found it necessary.”

The Testaments has been one of the hottest books of the year, rivalling Harry Potter for fan frenzy and glitzy publicity events. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985, focused mainly on one character, Offred, The Testaments takes place 15 years later and pulls together the stories of three women, including the infamous Aunt Lydia, the tyrant in charge of the handmaids. The television show is in its third season and the makers are planning a further series based on The Testaments.

There's little doubt that the book's popularity is owing in large part to the populism of U.S. President Donald Trump. Both books portray a repressive theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian region of the United States where handmaids are forcibly assigned to bear children for infertile members of the ruling class.

Ms. Evaristo, 60, is the first black woman to win the award. Mr. Florence described her book as “utterly magical” and called it “groundbreaking and I hope encouraging and inspiring to the rest of the country.”

After the awards ceremony, Ms. Evaristo said she was honoured to share the prize with Ms. Atwood. She added: “I’m not thinking about sharing it. I’m thinking about the fact that I got here. And I think that’s an incredible thing considering what the prize has meant to me in my literary life and it just felt so unattainable for decades.”

When asked what she will do with the money, she laughed and said: “Pay my mortgage.”

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