Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize last night with “Bring Up the Bodies,” the second installment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which began with 2009’s winner, “Wolf Hall.”
She’s the first woman and first British author to be given the award twice, and the first to win for two books in a row.
“You’re only as good as your last paragraph, and I haven’t even written one of those today,” Mantel said at a press conference after the award ceremony.
Mantel overcame competition from the bookies’ favorite, Will Self’s “Umbrella,” and four other finalists to claim the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award. The prize, which comes with 50,000 pounds ($81,000), was announced at a black-tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall.
Mantel had initially intended to chronicle the life of Cromwell, Henry VIII’s self-made fixer-in-chief, in just two volumes. After the success of “Wolf Hall,” she decided to make it three.
The judges praised Mantel for bringing to life a crucial chapter in English history as if for the first time, using modern language to convey in full its foreignness.
“This is a very remarkable piece of prose,” said the chairman of the judging panel, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Mantel “uses her art, her power of prose, to create moral ambiguity and the real uncertainty of political life. You can see as much Don Corleone in this as D.H. Lawrence.”
“Bring Up the Bodies” (Fourth Estate/Holt) resumes Cromwell’s story in 1535. The king is now married to Anne Boleyn, thanks largely to Cromwell’s machinations, yet there is still no male heir to the throne.
As the royal eye begins to rove again and rumors of Anne’s infidelities grow noisier, it becomes apparent that she must be gotten rid of. As her creator, Cromwell himself is in a precarious position at court, and he must summon all his Machiavellian guile to ensure her swift downfall.
More intense in focus than its predecessor, it entrenches Mantel’s Cromwell as one of literature’s most memorable characters.
Mantel said at the press conference that she plans to call the final installment in the trilogy “The Mirror and the Light.” She can’t tell how far along with it she is.
“Between the two Bookers I’ve had misadventures,” she said, explaining that she lost most of 2010 to illness and wrote “Bring Up the Bodies” very quickly.
“My method in writing is not sequential,” she said. “I make up books like a collage. I have files and files of material but it’s always difficult to say, ‘I’m up to Chapter 3,’ because that’s not the way it presents itself.”
Runners-up for the prize included Self’s experimental “Umbrella” (Bloomsbury/Grove), in which a psychiatrist uses a potent drug to awaken a feminist who has been catatonic for decades; and Tan Twan Eng’s “The Garden of Evening Mists” (Myrmidon/Weinstein), a complex novel rooted in 1950s Malaya, where horticulture offers balm for war’s deepest wounds.
The other finalists were Deborah Levy’s “Swimming Home” (Faber/And Other Stories/Bloomsbury USA), the tale of a troubled fan who invades a famous poet’s family vacation; Alison Moore’s “The Lighthouse” (Salt Publishing), a first novel about a man whose walking tour of Germany takes a terrifying turn; and Jeet Thayil’s “Narcopolis” (Faber/Penguin), another debut, this one a tale of addiction set in a Bombay opium den.
Now in its 44th year, the Man Booker promises an almost certain increase in sales. Each of the six finalists, including the winner, receives 2,500 pounds ($4,000) and a leather-bound edition of his or her own book.
The contest is designed to celebrate the best novel written in English by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published this year. Established in 1969 by food wholesaler Booker Plc, the prize has been sponsored since 2002 by Man Group Plc (EMG), the world’s largest publicly traded hedge-fund manager.
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