THE Irish novelist John Banville last night emerged as the surprise winner of the closest-fought Man Booker prize in years.
Banville, 60, was a 7-1 outsider to win Britain's 50,000 premier literary award for his novel The Sea when the shortlist was announced.
A former literary editor of The Irish Times, Banville was shortlisted for his 1989 novel The Book of Evidence. That year the ultimate winner was Kazuo Ishiguro, who was also on this year's shortlist.
Ishiguro, who yesterday won the People's Man Booker - in which members of the public picked their own favourites from the shortlist - had been strongly tipped to be the first Briton to win the Man Booker a second time. And Julian Barnes's Arthur and George in which Arthur Conan Doyle investigates the real-life miscarriage of justice - had been the bookies' favourite from the start.
Banville was modest as he collected his award. He said: "This is a great surprise and a great pleasure. Any one of these books could have won. To my colleagues I say just hang around and it will come. I have hung around for many years."
And he thanked his agent and publishers "who stuck with me through many unsaleable books over the years". He added: "I must mention my children to whom my book is dedicated, Douglas and Alice."
Banville's novel about a man who confronts his past in a seaside town where he spent a formative childhood holiday had been widely praised for its precise bejewelled sentences.
Reviewing it in The Scotsman, Alan Massie said it had all the qualities of a Trussaut film. In it, he added all of Banville's remarkable gifts came together to create a "real work of art".
However, other critics were less generous. "Lots of lovely language," wrote novelist Tibor Fisher, "but not much novel."
Others pointed out that although Banville wrote brilliantly, his novel was a disappointment in terms of character development, plot, pacing and suspense.
John Sutherland, the chairman of the judges, praised Banville's "superbly written book" and the way it used the English language "with virtuosic control".
Jan Dalley, the arts editor of the Financial Times, who commentated at the award ceremony, said the book must have won for its "sheer beauty of the writing sentence by sentence".
She said: "It's the quietest of the books."
In The Sea an elderly art historian, still in mourning for a wife he has lost to cancer, returns to the seaside house where, back in the 1950s, his first love had also stayed.
But this house of memories is also a place where, we are shown, he has also got his own version of the past completely wrong. He has, he gradually realises, unwittingly brought about yet another great loss.
Without giving the plot away, it is fair to say that this is a particularly clear-eyed and unsentimental story - hardly typical of what many people might expect from an Irish novel.
But Banville, the supreme stylist and master of the exquisite phrase, is hardly a traditional Irish novelist.
He is in fact every bit as exceptional as you might expect from a someone whose book has emerged triumphant from one of the strongest Man Booker shortlists in years.
Banville, 59, is the first Irish winner of the Booker since Roddy Doyle in 1993 with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
Born in Wexford in 1945, Banville's first book, Long Lankin, began a career that has proved one of the most enduring, and successful, of recent generations. He won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Doctor Copernicus in 1976, the Guardian Fiction Prize for Kepler in 1981 and, as well as a Booker nomination, The Book of Evidence secured the Guinness Peat Aviation Award in 1989.
Last year, the Man Booker prize went to The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst for his satire of the 1980s Conservative government, instead of to the favourite, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Hollinghurst's book went on to sell 320,000 copies.