Alan Hollinghurst wins prestigious Booker Prize

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October 20 2004 11:00 PM ET

Out British author Alan Hollinghurst has won the Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, for the tale of a gay hedonist living in Margaret Thatcher's England of the 1980s. "I know it is the decision for which I shall be grateful for the rest of my life," the soft-spoken 50-year-old writer said on Tuesday, as he reflected on the coveted award that gave his novel The Line of Beauty instant literary acclaim. "I feel very exhilarated and hardly know where I am." Hollinghurst's recollections of the Thatcher era were certainly not fond. "I felt an undiminished sense of indignation living through it," he told reporters after landing the Booker on his second attempt. Former culture minister Chris Smith described the decision as "incredibly difficult and close." Organizers confirmed it was the first time in the 36-year history of the Booker that a gay novel had won the prize.

The novel tells the tale of young Nick Guest, an Oxford University graduate living in the London house of a high-flying Conservative parliamentarian at the height of Thatcher's power. Guest has a passionate affair with a black council worker before falling in love with a cocaine-addicted millionaire. In the book's most memorable scene, the hero dances with Thatcher at a party while he is drugged up to the eyeballs. Smith, the United Kingdom's first openly gay cabinet minister, said of the panel's decision, "It resulted in a winning novel that is exciting, brilliantly written, and gets under the skin of the Thatcherite '80s." Of Hollinghurst's novel, he added. "The search for love, sex, and beauty is rarely this exquisitely done." Smith noted that "the novel's gay subject matter was not a prime consideration for the judges. It shows how much times have changed and changed for the better." Hollinghurst was first short-listed for the prize 10 years ago.

The $90,000 prize bestows instant literary fame on the winner, who can look forward to hitting best-seller lists around the world. Fellow British writer David Mitchell had been the hottest favorite in the history of the Booker to land the coveted prize for his complex time-machine novel, Cloud Atlas. But the judges decided after more than two hours of heated debate to go instead for Hollinghurst, who had been consistently quoted by bookmakers as second favorite. The Booker rewards the best novel of the past 12 months by a British, Irish, or Commonwealth writer. Won over the years by such renowned authors as Salman Rushdie and Nobel literature prizewinner J.M. Coetzee, it can lead to lucrative film and television contracts as well as instant literary stardom. Critics have in the past attacked the Booker judges for picking obscure winners who may dazzle academics but fail to attract general readers. But the last two winners before Hollinghurst's novel--Canadian Yann Martel's Life of Pi and DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little--proved to be popular page-turners that attracted a wide audience.

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