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Hilary Mantel scoops Booker fiction award

Bookmakers’ favourite Hilary Mantel won the coveted Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for the historical novel Wolf Hall, edging out her nearest rival by three votes to two in the final phase of judging.

The 650-page account of the life of Thomas Cromwell had been heavily backed by gamblers, although the last time the bookies’ choice walked off with the prize was in 2002 with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.

Accepting her award at a dinner in the medieval splendour of London’s Guildhall, Mantel, appropriately dressed in gold, said that if winning the Booker was like being in a train crash, ”at this moment I am happily flying through the air”.

”I hesitated for such a long time before beginning to write this book,” the 57-year-old told a star-studded audience. ”Actually, for about 20 years.”

Broadcaster James Naughtie, chair of the five-member judging panel, said Mantel had been chosen ”based on the sheer bigness of the book, the boldness of its narrative … the extraordinary way that Hilary Mantel has created what one of the judges said was a modern novel which happens to be set in the 16th century.”

During the course of the day, the shortlist of six nominees was reduced first to three candidates, then two, and the final vote on the winner was a narrow three to two in Mantel’s favour.

”It wasn’t a unanimous decision,” Naughtie said.

”These things seldom are, but it was a decision with which we were all content. There was no blood on the carpet. We parted good friends.”

Boost to sales
Mantel received a cheque for £50 000 ($80 000) and can expect sales of Wolf Hall and her other works to rise sharply after a publicity blitz in the coming days.

Ion Trewin, literary director of Man Booker Prizes, said Wolf Hall had sold nearly 50 000 copies in Britain by the end of September, a high number for a hard-back edition.

Last year’s winner, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, sold about 500 000 copies in Britain alone, illustrating the commercial importance of the Booker honouring English-language works by authors from the Commonwealth and Ireland.

Critics have praised Wolf Hall, which opens with Cromwell as victim of his violent father and picks up his story when he is in the service of Cardinal Wolsey.

He rises through the ranks to become one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted aides, helping the monarch in his attempts to break with the papacy in Rome. Mantel plans to publish a sequel that follows Cromwell to his execution in 1540.

Also in the running was South African-born JM Coetzee, who had won the award twice and was vying to become the first author to claim a hat-trick.

His Summertime is the story of a young biographer working on a book about the late writer John Coetzee and completes a trilogy of fictionalised memoirs for the 69-year-old Nobel laureate following Boyhood and Youth.

Another previous Booker winner on this year’s shortlist was AS Byatt, whose Possession triumphed in 1990.

Byatt (73) was nominated for The Children’s Book, the tale of a famous writer who pens a separate, private book for each of her children, complete with family mysteries.

The youngest author on the 2009 shortlist was Adam Foulds, born in 1974, whose novel The Quickening Maze is based on real events that took place at an asylum near London in the 1840s.

A novel about a house in Czechoslovakia owned by a newly married couple, the Landauers, was the basis for Simon Mawer’s entry on the list, The Glass Room, and rounding out the shortlist was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. – Reuters

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Mike Collett White
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