Hilary Mantel wins Man Booker for historical fiction sequel

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

DYING YOUNG and violently can bring its rewards. It certainly did for the relatively young Anne Boleyn (c1501-1536), second wife of Henry V111 and mother of Elizabeth 1.

Novelist Hilary Mantel, who won her second Man Booker prize in three years last night, for Bring Up the Bodies, the disappointingly artificial sequel to her entertaining if bloated 2009 winner Wolf Hall, has also capitalised on the compelling horror of Boleyn’s fate.

Mantel’s enjoyment of plundering history may be lost on readers who were hoping for a different outcome, a clash between the sheer fun and cleverness of Will Self’s Umbrella, and the dark panache of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, a brilliant endorsement of the truism that brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

Whatever about the gore, intrigue and ruthlessness of the Tudor age, Bring Up the Bodies, with its intense study of Boleyn’s spectacular rise and fall, is less interesting than its admittedly overrated predecessor. Mantel makes no secret of her fascination with Thomas Cromwell, who became Henry’s hatchet man/ adviser only to eventually lose the monarch’s favour.

This book is slighter, almost 250 pages shorter, and reads as it is, the middle volume of a trilogy. No doubt the final volume, in which the dastardly Cromwell’s luck runs out, will be eagerly awaited – if only because the pundits will wonder if the Man Booker judges will dare risk making it a Mantel and/or Cromwell hat-trick.

Boleyn died with her famous sense of style intact, requesting a sword instead of an axe for the task. Such famous images prove insufficient, nor is the depiction of Henry’s growing obsession with next wife Jane Seymour anything other than predictable. Bring Up the Bodies is dangerously close to formula historical romance.

Mantel now becomes the third double winner, following in the steps of the great South African (now Australian citizen) JM Coetzee and Australia’s New York resident Peter Carey.

In true Man Booker tradition, Mantel has won with an inferior work. Not only is Bring Up the Bodies not as good as Wolf Hall, it is far less impressive than the novel she should have won with, Beyond Black, in 2005.

Had Levy won, the sages would have agreed style, confidence and menace are a seductive mix. Self’s inventive Umbrella – the fun book on the list – will prove the stayer, rescuing many a dull Christmas party. He has responded to history; Mantel merely uses it.