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Gay theme brings home the Booker in close contest

London, Oct. 20: Alan Hollinghurst upset the form book last night to win the '50,000 Man Booker Prize with his fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, a graphic story of snobbery, gay sex and AIDS at the height of the Thatcher government.

The judges, chaired by Chris Smith, former Labour culture secretary and Britain's first openly gay cabinet minister, were strongly divided and took more than two hours to decide on a winner.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, had been the hottest favourite with the bookmakers in the prize's 36-year history. Mitchell, 35, a former sales assistant at Waterstone's, has been hailed as the finest young English author to emerge since Martin Amis.

The judges disclosed afterwards that Hollinghurst, Mitchell, and Colm Toibin's novel, The Master, had 'all been incredibly close'. They said the result was not unanimous and a final vote had been forced.

One source said: 'There was really only half a length between the three of them.'

Hollinghurst, 50, a poet as well as an author, was shortlisted for the prize with his second novel, The Folding Star.

A strong contender, it has been suggested since that it failed to win because the judges had been put off by its detailed gay scenes.

Though victory for Hollinghurst is likely to guarantee him huge sales ' last year's winner Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre has gone on to sell more than 500,000 copies in the English language ' some readers may be deterred by similar raw descriptions.

Hollinghurst's gay hero, Nick Guest, comes down from Oxford in the summer of 1983 to begin a doctorate on Henry James and finds himself thrown into the sort of fin de si'cle world that James himself chronicled so well.

Guest becomes a lodger in the family home of a friend in London's Notting Hill whose father is a rising star in Mrs Thatcher's government and for whom Guest has an unrequited passion.

As in The Swimming Pool Library, one of his earlier books, Hollinghurst's hero has a passionate affair with a young working class black man. The American novelist Edmund White called The Swimming Pool Library, published in 1988, 'the best book about gay life yet written by an English author'.

The Line of Beauty has won similar praise. Writing in The Telegraph, Anthony Quinn called it 'superb' and said that the author was 'in the prime of his writing life'.

Quinn added: 'The immaculate rolling cadences of his new novel are right now the keenest pleasure English prose has to offer.'

As well as sex, the winning novel is also a study of wealth, elegance, snobbery and cocaine-taking. The author tracks his hero's private and public lives up to Margaret Thatcher's election victory in 1987.

Chris Smith said last night that picking Hollinghurst was 'an incredibly close and difficult decision'. He went on: 'It has resulted in a winning novel that is exciting, brilliantly written and gets deep under the skin of the Thatcherite Eighties. The search for love, sex and beauty is rarely this exquisitely done.'

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