LONDON (Reuters) - Australian author Richard Flanagan's "The Narrow Road to the Deep North", set during the building of the Thailand-Burma "Death Railway" in World War Two, won Britain's prestigious 50,000-pound ($79,530) Man Booker literature prize on Tuesday.
Flanagan's sixth novel beat out what jury chairman Anthony Grayling said was a strong short list of six books that for the first time, under a rule change, included works by two Americans - giving rise to fears beforehand that the British prize might come to be dominated by American writers.
Grayling said those fears should now be put to rest and went on to say, of the winner, that it was rare to run across a book that "hits you so hard in the stomach, like this, that you can't pick up the next one in the pile for a couple of days".
"It's an absolutely superb novel, really outstanding, it's a great work of literature," Grayling said in a briefing before the award was made public.
Flanagan, 53, is ranked among Australia's finest novelists and also worked as a writer with director Baz Luhrmann on the 2008 film "Australia".
His father, who was a survivor of the Burma Death Railway, died at age 98, the day Flanagan finished "The Narrow Road to the Deep North".
Grayling, a philosopher, said Flanagan was chosen by consensus of the six-person judging panel, but a spokeswoman for the public relations firm representing the prize clarified that Grayling had at one point used his tie-breaker vote "to move the discussion forward" - indicating the choice was not unanimous.
The other books on the short list were "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Jay Fowler (American), "To Rise Again at a Decent Hour" by Joshua Ferris (American), "J" by Howard Jacobson (British), "The Lives of Others" by Neel Mukherjee (British} and "How to be Both" by Ali Smith (British).
In "The Narrow Road to the Deep North," Flanagan takes up the story of Allied prisoners of war used as forced labor by the Japanese to build the notorious railway line. His protagonist is Dorrigo Evans, a doctor and a soldier in the Australian army who is taken prisoner on Java, presumably in 1942.
In the despair of a Japanese POW camp, Evans is haunted by his love affair with his young uncle's wife two years earlier. While struggling to save the men under his command from cholera and beatings, he receives a letter that changes his life forever.
Named after a famous Japanese book by the haiku poet Basho, Grayling said the novel succeeds in showing there are "extra dimensions" to the relationships between the POWs and their guards.
"It's not really a war novel, it's not about people shooting and bombs going off, and so on, it's much more about the people and their relationships," he said.
At a gala dinner, a trophy was presented to Flanagan by Prince Charles's wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, while the check for the prize money was presented by Emmanuel Roman, chief executive of Man Group.
(1 US dollar = 0.6287 British pound)
(Editing by Alden Bentley)