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Booker tie: Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. Photo/Getty Images

Why the best Booker winner decision was wrong

The world’s most prestigious literary prize was declared a draw between Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood's novels. Reviewer Catherine Robertson disagrees.

This year’s Booker Prize judges broke the rules and awarded it to two novels, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. The judges’ rather clumsy justification of their decision suggested that instead of focusing solely on the merits of the novels, they had also taken into consideration the reputation of each author. This did not go down well. “You had one job,” said a critic. “That wasn’t it.”

Even if you agree that Atwood is a writer of historic significance and Evaristo has been shamefully underrated, the real question is: are the novels of equal merit? Short answer: no.

Girl, Woman, Other is an ambitious delight of a book. Anglo-Nigerian Evaristo gives us the lives of 12 characters, almost all women, all connected to a black heritage but not of one mind about how it shapes their identity. She connects all the characters in sometimes surprising ways, and with such compassion and wit that you forgive all their flaws.

Read more: Girl, Woman, Other is featured in the Listener's 100 Best Books of 2019

Evaristo covers a vast amount of tricky social ground with immense skill, lightening the didactic parts with humour. Perhaps she treads a little too lightly, as this is a comforting read when racism and issues of gender continue to threaten lives. Those averse to experimental novels needn’t worry about the poetry-style lack of capitals and full stops – it enhances the readability. This is a novel of the times, but it is also a beautiful, clever and enduring work.

The Testaments is unarguably a novel of the times. The anticipation for this sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale was amplified enormously by the television series, its success in turn fuelled by the behaviour of certain men in power and the emergence of newly oppressive social regimes.

It’s 15 years since the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, and we are back in Gilead with two of our narrators, ruthless survivor Aunt Lydia and Wife-in-grooming Agnes. Outside, safe in Canada, is third narrator Daisy, but now that she’s of age to know who she really is, she may soon have no choice but to return.

The Handmaid’s Tale is rightfully a literary classic. This book disappoints. Atwood’s wit and intelligence are not enough to elevate what feels like a flimsy, rushed piece of work. Action is prioritised over emotional depth; Daisy, especially, lacks substance. The structure, tight at the start, soon begins to fracture and the ending is a complete fizzer.

It’s a shame that Atwood’s legendary skill isn’t showcased in the one novel most people will read. And no prizes for guessing which book should have been this year’s sole Booker winner.

GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER, by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton, $40); THE TESTAMENTS, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus, $48).

This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.