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Top Brit novel finally arrives in U.S. bookstores next week

October 7, 2009

Britain Booker PrizeTo no one’s surprise, Hilary Mantel’s novel of Tudor intrigue, Wolf Hall, took the Man Booker Prize yesterday. U.S. readers can judge it for themselves next week, when Holt publishes an American edition

Mantel beat out a strong short list of contenders, including two-time winner J.M. Coetzee and A.S. Byatt, also a previous winner. Judges tussled behind closed doors for three hours before selecting Wolf Hall on a three-two vote.

The prize carries a £50,000 purse ($83,000) for Mantel, 57, who won for the first time in a distinguished and varied writing career. What’s more, the Man Booker increases sales.

Last year’s winner, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, has sold more than 500,000 copies and been translated into 30 languages, reports NPR. Already by far the most popular among the nominees, Wolf Hall has 100,000 copies in circulation. The novel’s British publisher shipped an additional 65,000 after Monday’s announcement.

Readers, critics and bookies — apparently the British will bet on anything– all expected Mantel’s win. The novel, a retelling of Henry VIII’s machinations to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Bolyn, is said to be “sweeping” in scope, historically accurate, yet still modern.

At one point, odds-makers had Wolf Hall as a 16-1 favorite, according to the Guardian — which could have worked against it. Mantel’s novel is the first odds-makers’ favorite to win since Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi in 2002.

BBC broadcaster Jim Naughtie, who chaired the panel of judges, praised the novel’s scale and skill, the Guardian reported: “Our decision was based on the sheer bigness of the book, the boldness of its narrative and scene-setting, the gleam that there is in its detail.”

Wolf Hall centers on the low-born Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious lawyer who rose to become Henry’s chief “fixer, spin doctor and propagandist.” As we all should know by now, Henry’s drive to produce an heir, taking and discarding six wives in the process, led to a break with the Pope and the establishment of the Church of England–monumental historic developments.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mantel’s achievement is her ability to make such overly familiar material seem worth reading about again.

The inherent drama in this bit of key British history has been mined for innumerable books, plays, movies, and TV shows, including Robert Bolt’s play, A Man For All Seasons; last year’s film The Other Boleyn Girl, starring those well-known classical British actresses Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson; and “The Tudors,” Showtime’s hit drama with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VII.

The Los Angeles Times says in Mantel’s version, familiar historical characters — all real — “get a a freshening-up. Cromwell is more bureaucrat than revolutionary, Sir Thomas More is not the heroic man of faith as we’ve come to know, and Henry VIII is not the virile sex fiend of ‘The Tudors.'”

Meanwhile, the Man Booker Prize should catapult Mantel to the upper reaches of literary popularity. The Guardian termed her one of the “most highly regarded” and “under-rewarded” of British novelists. Wolf Hall was her first book to reach the Man Booker short list.

Mantel, the author of a dozen novels and memoirs, first conceived of Wolf Hall 20 years ago, and spent five years writing it. She called the prize money “earnings,” saying “cost out what an author earns per hour, it’s far, far less than the minimum wage … It must pay the mortgage, as authors have to do.”

The Guardian reports Mantel is at work on a sequel, titled The Mirror and the Light. “What I have got at the moment is a huge box of notes,” she said.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:52 pm

    Yes it’s sad that authors cannot make a living on writing alone. And yes, they have to pay the mortgage. But look here little lady, you just won the Man Booker so just be happy.

    Thanks Chauncey Mabe. Very interesting. I find that when a book has won some sort of prize that my expectations are raised. And rarely are they able to meet those expectations.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 7, 2009 3:16 pm

    I have to admit that I’m usually wary when a writer takes on material, like the love and political lives of Henry VII, that have already been done to death. But as Hemingway said, There are no original stories under the sun (which also rises). It’s all in how you write them. So I’m willing to give Mantel a go. I mean, 100,000 British readers can’t be wrong, right? These are the people who invented the language, after all.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 7, 2009 3:28 pm

    Of course, I meant Henry VIII, not Henry VII. Actually, it’s bit amazing how little we hear nowdays about HVII, who was the father of HVIII and reigned for nearly a quarter century. But then, all he did was bring stability to the nation in the wake of the War of the Roses and found the long-lasting Tudor dynasty. Not as sexy as chopping off the heads of inconvenient wives or bringing the Reformation to England because you’re peeved with the Pope.

  4. Candice permalink
    October 7, 2009 7:34 pm

    Way to go Mantel! Another one I’ll add to my booklist. Gee, I really need to get to a bookstore soon.

  5. October 9, 2009 11:36 am

    Yes , they in fact invented the language. A long time friend and former business partner David Hymas always told me you folks over there in America have done quite a bit of changing it. (with a smile). Truth be told there are two people I know who have the absolute command and style of the English language. Their ability to write properly is wonderful. One is David Hymas, the other Chauncey Mabe. One day they may meet I hope.

  6. Hala Hunt permalink
    June 12, 2010 10:41 am

    How about the new Brit Novel, “The Hollow”, by author, John Scudamore, published by Book Guild Publishers in Brighton, England? Has anyone read it? You might find it very interesting as it is about ladies in the Jane Austen era-where you will find history and romance, dreams and longing, passion and eroticism, art, music and literature.
    In The Hollow, the young women trapped in the bondage of that era, are permitted to indulge their repressed feelings in a manner of their own choosing, which allows them to be loved in the manner we regard as normal and natural in today’s world.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 12, 2010 3:28 pm

    That’s for that recommendation. I can find no indication this book is scheduled for U.S. publication.

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