Many British literary critics had thought Atwood, 60, stood the best chance of collecting the $30,500 purse for her 10th novel, the tangled tale of a family tragedy as retold by an 82-year-old protagonist.
So did London's bookies - the betting kind, not the literati. They had laid odds favoring Atwood, who had been short-listed for the prize three times previously.
The award, presented at a glittering ceremony Tuesday night in London's Guildhall, all but guarantees a spot on the best-seller lists for the winner, sometimes doubling hardback sales.
Atwood appeared taken aback to have finally won after nominations in 1986, 1989 and 1996. "I was so unprepared, I didn't even work up a speech," she told the black-tie crowd.
Others in contention for the prize had included Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker in 1989 for The Remains of the Day, a critical and commercial hit.
Ishiguro was short-listed this year for When We Were Orphans, the story of a London detective haunted by the disappearance of his parents in early 20th-century Shanghai. It has garnered mixed reviews; a review in the Observer newspaper described it as "a weak novel by a previously brilliant writer."
Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki, was also short-listed in 1986 for An Artist of the Floating World, set in wartime Japan.
Also generating considerable buzz in advance of the announcement was first-time novelist Trezza Azzopardi, short-listed for The Hiding Place, a harrowing family tale set in the seedy 1960s underworld of Cardiff, Wales.
Others on the short list were:
- Expatriate Irish writer Michael Collins, nominated for The Keepers of the Truth, set in a dying American industrial town.
- Matthew Kneale, who lives in Oxford, for English Passengers, the story of a 19th-century cleric's search for the Garden of Eden, which he believes is on the island of Tasmania.
- Irish-born Brian O'Doherty, who now lives in New York, for The Deposition of Father McGreevy, set in 1950s London and a remote mountain village in Ireland's County Kerry.
The prize, now in its 32nd year, is bestowed on the best novel written in English by an author from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of former British colonies.
Written By LAURA KING ©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed