Hilary Mantel and two first-time novelists were among six finalists for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the U.K.’s most prestigious literary award.
Sponsored by hedge-fund manager Man Group Plc., the contest brings the winner a prize of 50,000 pounds ($80,000) and the promise of an almost certain increase in book sales.
“These are very different books but they all show a huge and visible confidence,” Peter Stothard, chairman of the judging panel and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, told journalists at Man Group’s London headquarters. It was one of the strongest years for fiction in more than a decade, he said.
Mantel was tapped for “Bring Up the Bodies” (Fourth Estate), the second installment of her trilogy about the life of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Its predecessor, “Wolf Hall,” won the 2009 prize. No U.K. writer has ever won twice.
Jeet Thayil made the final cut with his first novel, “Narcopolis” (Faber), a tale of gangsters, eunuchs and poets in an opium-riddled Bombay. He was joined by Alison Moore for her debut “The Lighthouse” (Salt Publishing), the startling story of a doomed walking holiday.
Notable omissions in the early stages of this contest included boldfaced names Martin Amis and Zadie Smith, and a bevy of previous winners: Ian McEwan, John Banville, Pat Barker and Howard Jacobson.
“We were considering novels not novelists, texts not reputations,” Stothard said.
The other finalists are: Tan Twan Eng for “The Garden of Evening Mists” (Myrmidon Books); Will Self for “Umbrella” (Bloomsbury); and Deborah Levy’s “Swimming Home (And Other Stories),” which was initially turned down by conventional publishers and released instead by a company that relies on public grants and private subscriptions. It is now published by Faber & Faber.
“Umbrella” follows the story of Audrey Death, a feminist who falls victim to an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica.
Levy’s story takes place over a single week in which a group of beautiful, flawed tourists in the French Riviera come loose at the seams.
The contest is designed to celebrate the best novel written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published this year, and has grown to dominate the U.K. literary calendar since it was first awarded in 1969.
The chairman of last year’s judging panel, Stella Rimington, expressed a preference for books with “readability.” The ensuing brouhaha spurred publishing grandees to talk of establishing an alternative award.
That remains to be realized and the 2011 Man Booker Prize ultimately went to the most establishment of finalists, Julian Barnes.
The 2012 winner is scheduled to be announced at a black tie dinner in London’s medieval Guildhall on Oct. 16.
“How did we decide?” Stothard said. “The answer is by argued literary criticism. There really isn’t any other way. It was the power and depth of the prose that settled most of the debates.”
His fellow judges include historian Amanda Foreman and “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens, who said he’d been reading on set during the filming of the television show’s third season.