John Banville's "The Sea," a lyrical novel about loss and remembrance, won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction at a dinner in London's Medieval Guildhall Monday. It is Great Britain's highest literary honor.

The Irish author defeated what the judges called unprecedented competition from a list of six finalists including "Arthur & George" by Julian Barnes, "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith, and "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the award in 1989.

The level of the finalists "was as high as it can ever have been," said John Sutherland, a professor emeritus at University College London who chaired the panel of five judges.

Banville's novel, he said, was "a masterly study of grief, memory and love remembered. It's a grab-you-by-the-throat book."

"The Sea" recalls with longing a boy's enchantment with a bohemian family.

The book opens with art historian Max Morden mourning his wife's death from cancer. The emotion tugs Max back through the decades to a boyhood holiday curtailed by grief. At the time, Max was 11 years old and drawn to the raffish, sophisticated Grace family. He spent endless days swimming and picnicking with them and exchanging first kisses with Chloe under the gaze of her mute, watchful twin brother, Myles. Returning to the same Irish seaside resort, the bereaved Max meditates on loss and memory, aging and writing. He weaves his reveries of married life together with the ghostly story of what happened that summer long ago. Uneasy nostalgia permeates the book.

Born in 1945, Banville saw the world as an employee of Irish airline Aer Lingus. He also worked as a literary journalist before turning to novel writing full time. His first book was published in 1970. He has since written 13 more, including a loose trilogy of novels narrated by a convicted murderer. His "Book of Evidence" was a finalist for the Booker in 1989, when Ishiguro won the award.

The prize, which is open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of former British colonies, was established by Booker PLC in 1969 and includes a cash award worth about $88,000. Since 2002, hedge-fund company Man Group has sponsored it. Judges selected "The Sea" from 109 books. Novels by some of the best-known authors in the U.K. literary establishment, including previous Booker winners Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, didn't make it to the final round. "The Accidental" by Ali Smith and "A Long, Long Way" by Sebastian Barry rounded out the shortlist. "There's something abnormal about these novels competing against one another," said Sutherland, chairman of the judging panel. "Yet it's the only way to get some fizz into the book trade."

John Banville was a literary journalist before turning to novels full time in 1970.