Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Costa judge: Why Hilary Mantel had to win

Toby Clements, a Costa judge, reflects upon Hilary Mantel's overall win.

Hilary Mantel: Unstoppable?  
As one of the judges for this year’s Costa Award for Fiction, I was faced with a not wholly pleasurable quandary: should we award the prize to a relatively unknown author and congratulate ourselves for giving flight to a new writer’s career, or ought we just pack up early and award the prize to Hilary Mantel?
Less sprawling than Wolf Hall but just as all-encompassing, Bring Up the Bodies charts not just the fall of Anne Boleyn and the counterbalancing rise of Jane Seymour in Henry VIIIs affections, it also follows Cromwell’s revenge on five men for their mockery of Cardinal Wolsey in a masque performed after his death.
Mantel has already won the Man Booker prize (twice, for Wolf Hall and its sequel) and Bring Up the Bodies has sold 240,000 copies in hardback – more than eight times the combined total of the other four category winners. Surely she hardly needs the prize money, or the publicity? Even people who don’t read books know who she is. As one of my fellow judges wondered aloud, just how much further up can those bodies be brought?
Of course it is now a matter of historical record that not only did Hilary Mantel win the Costa Award for Best Novel, she has now netted the overall award – and in the end that is right, because not to have done so would have been perverse. After all, encouraging the careers of fledgling authors is not the business of most literary prizes. The standard of the other category winners was high, but right now Hilary Mantel is like Rafa Nadal was in 2008, and however well her opponents are playing, however much the literary equivalents of Djokovic, or Murray or Federer raise their games, she is able to raise hers higher, to come up with something daring to take the breath away and leave her opponents flat-footed and rooted to the ground.
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