LONDON, Oct. 11 - "The Sea," the Irish writer John Banville's lyrical novel about the emotional return of a widower to the town where he spent a memorable, traumatic vacation decades earlier, won the Man Booker Prize for fiction on Monday night.
Mr. Banville's book was a surprise choice for the prize, Britain's most influential literary award, beating novels by Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith, among others. Open to novels by authors from the British Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland, the Man Booker Prize carries a check for $87,600 and the promise of hugely increased hardcover sales for the winning author.
The chairman of the judging panel, John Sutherland, the fiction editor of The Times Literary Supplement, said that the decision was "painful" and that he had been obliged to cast the deciding vote when his four fellow judges split into two camps, with two favoring the "The Sea" and two supporting another book. Mr. Sutherland would not reveal the name of the runner-up, but the Guardian Web site reported that it was believed to be Mr. Ishiguro's novel "Never Let Me Go."
"The Sea" tells the story of Max Morden, a querulous Irish art historian who, after his wife dies, returns to Ballyless, a vacation spot where he spent a formative summer as a child. There he became infatuated with and entangled in the lives of a pair of fraternal twins, Myles and Chloe Grace, and had his first sexual experiences. But as his memories bubble up to the surface, and as he meditates on his marriage and the death of his wife, Max is forced into a painful re-evaluation of both past and present.
"This is a beautifully written novel through which art and myth are seamlessly woven, the hypnotic result coming somewhere close to perfection," the critic Ross Gilfillan said in the Daily Mail.
"The Sea" is the 14th novel by Mr. Banville, who is 59 and lives in Dublin. He is perhaps best known for "The Book of Evidence," which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1989 but lost out to Mr. Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day."
Asked at a news conference on Monday night about the difference between his experience at the Booker dinners in 1989 and 2005, Mr. Banville said he had had far less to drink this time around.
He also said that he was truly surprised that he had beaten the other finalists. When asked how he would spend the money, he at first said he did not know, and then changed his mind, saying, "Good works and strong drink."
The bestowing of the Booker Prize is usually marked by some controversy or other. This year it was the fact that books by several big-name authors, including Ian McEwan's "Saturday" and Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown," were put on the preliminary long list of nominees but failed to make the six-book shortlist. In addition, "Saturday" got mostly glowing reviews, except for one particularly harsh one in The New York Review of Books, where the reviewer - Mr. Banville - called it "a dismayingly bad book" and then went on to make the shortlist with his own competing book.
The other books on the shortlist included Mr. Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go," a story set in the near future about a group of schoolchildren who, it soon becomes clear, are not at all like other people; Zadie Smith's "On Beauty," a modern retelling of E. M. Forster's "Howard's End" about two families - the fathers are academic rivals - whose lives intersect at a university town in the American northeast with complicated results; and Ali Smith's "The Accidental," about a mysterious stranger's subtle and thorough influence on every member of a family on vacation in Norfolk.
Also shortlisted were Mr. Barnes's "Arthur & George," a story about the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and a man he tried to save from a miscarriage of justice in 19th-century Britain; and Sebastian Barry's "A Long Long Way," about Irishmen who fought for the British Army in World War I.