The American revolution that opened this year's Man Booker Prize to US novelists ended with a win for Australian Richard Flanagan and his book, The Narrow Road To The Deep North. Fears that a change in the rules allowing US entries would lead to a flood of American contenders proved unfounded as Flanagan picked up the £50,000 prize from the Duchess of Cornwall who got a hug in the process.
Speaking to reporters after his win, he said he had burnt five previous attempts at telling the story which was inspired by his father's experiences as a prisoner of war on the Thailand-Burma death railway. He said: "A good writer needs a good rubbish bin."
The Tasmanian-born writer said his father's experience had been a huge influence. He said: "I realised at a certain point that if I was to continue writing I would have to write this book. I don't think I particularly wanted to write it but I understood it was the book I had to write in order to keep on writing."
Flanagan, whose father died when he finished the novel, said he had spoken to him about "very small things" about his time in the camps which were notorious for their cruelty. He said: "He never asked me what the story was, he trusted me to write a book that might be true."
The academic AC Grayling, who chaired the judging panel, described it as "an absolutely superb novel". He said the book, about a surgeon struggling to save the men under his command in the camp while being haunted by an affair he had with his uncle's wife years before, was a deserved winner.
Mr Grayling said the book was "not really a war novel". He said: "It's not just about the Second World War, it's about any war and it's about the effect on a human being, an ordinary calibre of human being, of being thrown into that situation." He added: "It's not about people shooting one another and bombs going off and so on, it's much more about people, their experience and their relationships. What's interesting about it is that it's very nuanced, it's as if everybody on the Burma railway on both sides of the story were victims of the situation."
Flanagan said the prize money would allow him to keep writing for a while and revealed he almost quit literature for a job in the mines. His success means the first two American authors ever to be shortlisted went home empty-handed, but Flanagan said literature should not be "about boundaries".
He said: "To talk of Australian novelists makes as much sense as talking about Angolan chiropodists to me." This was the first year American authors were allowed to enter the prize, previously restricted to the UK and Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe, and led to predictions of US dominance of the long-running prize.
Winning the prize virtually guarantees a huge increase in sales with last year's winner, Eleanor Catton, selling almost 800,000 copies worldwide of her winning novel The Luminaries.
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