Hilary Mantel wrote herself into the history books on Tuesday, becoming the first woman and first Briton to win the coveted Man Booker prize for fiction twice with Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to her acclaimed Wolf Hall.
Two men had previously “done the double” – J.M. Coetzee who was born in South Africa and Australia’s Peter Carey.
Chair of judges Peter Stothard described Mantel as the “greatest modern English prose writer”, and told reporters she had rewritten the art of historical fiction. Wolf Hall, her reimagining of the rise of blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell to the top of the court of King Henry VIII, won the €60,000 prize in 2009.
Bring Up the Bodies, published by HarperCollins imprint Fourth Estate, picks up the action in 1535 with Anne Boleyn’s spectacular fall from grace and execution the following year.
“This is a bloody story of the death of Anne Boleyn and the pursuit of Anne Boleyn, but Hilary Mantel is a writer who thinks through the blood. She uses her power of prose to create moral ambiguity and the real uncertainty about political life then,” Stothard said of the winner.
There could yet be a third Booker prize for Mantel. The final part of her epic trilogy, called The Mirror and the Light, is expected to hit shelves in 2015.
Stothard, who is editor of the Times Literary Supplement, likened the character of Cromwell to Don Corleone of the famous Godfather film series.
“If you are looking for comparing it with things, you can see as much Don Corleone in this book as D.H. Lawrence,” he said in the medieval splendour of London’s Guildhall, where the prize was announced at a glitzy dinner.
“There is certainly a Godfather element to this book including, I have to say, the moral ambiguity of the Don Corleone/Thomas Cromwell figure.
“The way she uses language to make you slightly uncertain as to whether or not Cromwell is acting wrongly or rightly, or sincerely or insincerely... is all created by prose.”
Stothard, who sought to impose rigorous literary criticism to the judging process this year, said Bring Up the Bodies had surpassed Wolf Hall, calling it “tighter”.
He banned fellow judges, including Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens, from mentioning books other than the six novels shortlisted for the prize and from expressing a personal preference.
Stothard also prevented the five-member panel from taking the decision to a vote, saying that the winning novel was the one for which the arguments in favour proved strongest.
“We have never had a vote at any point in our long discussions,” he explained. “I don’t believe that art can be reduced to numbers.”
His comments were seen as a rebuttal of the 2011 selection process during which judges led by former British spymaster Stella Rimington upset many within the London literati by stressing the importance of ‘readability’ in their choice of winner.
Also on the shortlist this year, and joint favourite, was Will Self’s Umbrella, a modernist tale about Audrey Death, a woman who falls into a coma at the end of World War I only to be awoken decades later when Zack Busner discovers a cure.
The writer said he wanted to challenge what he called “profoundly conservative narrative fiction” with a book that critics have variously described as “sprawling”, “draining” and “moving”.
Up against the literary ‘establishment’ were two first-time novelists – Alison Moore for The Lighthouse and Indian writer and poet Jeet Thayil for Narcopolis.
Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng made it to the Booker long list with his first novel The Gift of Rain in 2007 and was shortlisted for The Garden of Evening Mists.
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