Hilary Mantel could become the first British writer to win the Booker Prize twice, after Bring up the Bodies was named on the six-strong shortlist for this year’s award.
The judges hailed the second novel in Ms Mantel’s trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell as having “even greater mastery” than its predecessor Wolf Hall, which won the Booker in 2009.
The shortlist also included Deborah Levy’s first novel in over a decade, a book that had been rejected by traditional publishers, and was funded by an innovative subscription model instead.
Sir Peter Stothard, chair of the judges and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said: “This has been an exhilarating year for fiction, the strongest, I would say, for more than a decade.”
He defended the choice of Ms Mantel’s work again making the shortlist saying: “It of course drew us into a critical comparison with its predecessor”. Yet, he continued: “The judges this year noted her even greater mastery of method now. Her powerful realism in the separation of past and present, and the vivid depiction of English character and landscape.”
Only two writers have won the award twice, and neither were British. Sir Peter said: “The accolade of Peter Carey and JM Coetzee is legitimately there to be won if the novel, not the novelist is deemed the best.” Bookies Ladbrokes immediately installed her as the favourite.
Ms Mantel will compete against Will Self, nominated for his book Umbrella. Sir Peter called the pair: “Two of the great established radicals of contemporary literature.”
The modernist work, Self’s ninth novel, is about a woman confined to a psychiatric hospital. It has no chapters and paragraph breaks are rare, with reviewers pointing to the influence of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Sir Peter said: “This novel is both moving and draining. The judges placed Umbrella on the shortlist with the conviction that those who stick with it will find it much less difficult than it first seems.”
The addition of Ms Levy’s Swimming Home was a surprise as it had initially failed to pick up mainstream publisher, instead turning to And Other Stories. The judges felt it had technical artistry, flowing prose “and a little Gatsby too”.
Sir Peter declined to criticise the industry for missing out on a gem, although “I hope they will take some notice of us”. He added: “The beauty of being a Man Booker judge purely and solely on the merits of the text; not how many you think it is going to sell.”
At the longlist announcement, Sir Peter said the “new have powered through” and two first novels made it through the shortlist: Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse and Indian poet Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis.
It was rounded out by The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, who had been longlisted in 2007 for his debut novel The Gift of Rain. One judge described its beauty as similar to “slowly clashing icebergs”.
The judges, who also comprise Dinah Birch, professor of English literature at the University of Liverpool, Historian and author Amanda Foreman, Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens and academic Bharat Tandon, took more than three hours to whittle the longlist down.
Ms Birch said: “We often disagreed but we never quarrelled. It was quite painful to lose some of the books. It wasn’t a bloodless process by any means.”
Sir Peter concluded: “We found the six books most likely to last and repay future re-reading. These are very different books but they show a huge and visible confidence.”
- Tan Twan Eng - The Garden Of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)
- Deborah Levy - Swimming Home (And Other Stories/Faber & Faber)
- Hilary Mantel - Bring Up The Bodies (Fourth Estate)
- Alison Moore - The Lighthouse (Salt)
- Will Self - Umbrella (Bloomsbury)
- Jeet Thayil - Narcopolis (Faber & Faber