Wolf Hall outstanding novel of our time, say Bath Festival judges

Marking the 20th anniversary of the Bath Literature Festival, now The Independent Bath Literature Festival, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel was deemed the overall winner

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The Independent Culture

From the winners of the biggest literary prizes to acclaimed books that somehow missed out altogether, a panel of literary experts has compiled what it believes should be the definitive list of the best books of the past two decades – topped by Wolf Hall, a book that “transformed the literary landscape”.

Marking the 20th anniversary of the Bath Literature Festival, now The Independent Bath Literature Festival, the project was led by its artistic director Viv Groskop. Among the honoured authors are Donna Tartt, Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan. But Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel was deemed the overall winner by the judges who drew up the final list, after taking into account favourites suggested by those who attend the festival.

“Our final list includes authors writing in English from around the world,” Ms Groskop said. “I wanted to celebrate books readers have loved and to pinpoint the novels that transformed the literary landscape. Wolf Hall has done that with bells on.”

Mantel’s novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell at Henry VIII’s court won the Booker in 2009 when James Naughtie, chair of the judges, hailed “the boldness of its narrative, its scene-setting”. The first of the author’s Cromwell trilogy has also been adapted as a high-budget BBC drama about to conclude this week, starring Mark Rylance. It was not universally acclaimed at the time of publication, however, with Susan Bassnet saying it was “dreadfully badly written” in Times Higher Education.

The longlist was drawn up from every novel shortlisted for a prize in the past 20 years, as well as some that had been overlooked entirely. The judges ruled that the best book of 2002 was Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which was not nominated for a single major award that year.

Ms Groskop said: “Some years were more hotly contested than others and we nearly came to blows over the exclusion of Martin Amis and Jonathan Franzen.”

The commentator John Walsh, who was among the members of the panel, said that they spent three tense hours in which the judges “argued, rhapsodised, quoted, bitched, mocked each other’s choices, complained about the suspicious number of men, or women, among the chosen ones, and poured scorn on several settled reputations”.

Other judges included the critic and author Stephanie Merritt, BBC Radio 4 producer Dixi Stewart and literary agent Andrew Gordon of David Higham Associates.

Walsh said: “We think the final top 20 represents the books that most conspicuously rocked the English-language universe in the last 20 years.”

The Independent Bath Literature Festival starts on Friday.

The panel’s choice: The best works of the last 20 years

1995: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin  (Louis de Bernières)

1996: Alias Grace  (Margaret Atwood)

1997: American Pastoral (Philip Roth)

1998: England, England Julian Barnes

1999: Disgrace  (J M Coetzee)

2000: White Teeth  (Zadie Smith)

2001: Atonement  (Ian McEwan)

2002: Any Human Heart (William Boyd)

2003: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

2004: Small Island  (Andrea Levy) 

2005: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver)

2006: The Road  (Cormac McCarthy)

2007: Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

2008: The Outcast (Sadie Jones)

2009: The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters)

2010: Wolf Hall  (Hilary Mantel)

2011: A Visit From the Goon Squad  (Jennifer Egan)

2012: State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)

2013: Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)

2014: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)

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