Man Booker Prize won by Hilary Mantel’s tale of historical intrigue
From The Times, October 6, 2009
Ben Hoyle, Arts Correspondent
Hilary Mantel, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall
The hottest favourite in the 40-year history of the Man Booker Prize edged home last night when Wolf Hall was named the winner in a secret ballot by three votes to two.
The judges described Hilary Mantel’s 650-page doorstopper about political manoeuvring at the court of Henry VIII as an “extraordinary piece of storytelling . . . a modern novel that happens to be set in the 16th century”.
It is the first favourite to triumph in Britain’s leading literary competition since Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in 2002. Booksellers predicted that Wolf Hall would go on to outsell all previous Booker winners.
James Naughtie, the broadcaster and chairman of the judges, said that Mantel’s book was the most towering achievement in a shortlist that resembled an Alpine landscape of accomplishment. His panel — which featured Lucasta Miller, a critic and biographer, Michael Prodger, the literary editor of The Sunday Telegraph, John Mullan, an academic and author, and Sue Perkins, the comedian and broadcaster — met for three “passionate, good-humoured” hours.
“We had to see some books sailing down the swannee that we had much admired,” Naughtie said.
Mantel, 57, is a seasoned novelist who has been shortlisted for the Orange prize and the Commonwealth prize for fiction. Wolf Hall revolves around Thomas Cromwell, the bullying, quick-thinking son of a Putney drunk and blacksmith who becomes Henry VIII’s most powerful adviser.
She said last night: “I hesitated for such a long time before beginning to write this book, actually for about 20 years ... At this moment I am happily flying through the air.”
The decision dashed J. M. Coetzee’s hopes of a record third win after victory in 1983 with Life and Times of Michael K and in 1999 with Disgrace.
Booksellers and readers alike will hope that Mantel’s intention to write a sequel comes to fruition sooner than her promised novel about Jean-Paul Marat, “guest star” of A Place of Greater Safety. Seventeen years after her French Revolution epic was published there is no sign of the follow-up.
However, in a vintage year Wolf Hall was the novel that dominated the betting, the booksales, the e-book sales and the headlines.Going into yesterday’s judging it was the 10-11 favourite with William Hill, the shortest odds given to any nominee. No evidence was found to suggest foul play and Naughtie insisted that none of the panel knew who the winner would be until after the field had been whittled down to two and Ion Trewin, the prize’s director, announced the results of a secret ballot.
Wolf Hall was also doing brisker business than its rivals at the tills. Initially it was outsold by Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger but, according to Waterstone’s, sales of the book increased by 500 per cent after it was shortlisted. It has sold six times as well in e-book format as its nearest rival.
Recent Booker panels have pointed out how they were more open-minded about what constituted literary fiction. This year’s longlist included Me Cheeta, a spoof Hollywood memoir, purportedly written by a chimpanzee.
Despite its highbrow reputation, the prize was founded to sell books. Mr Trewin said that it was achieving its original purpose: “not only to reward superb fiction but to encourage people to go out and read it”.