The Cromwell steamroller triumphs

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"There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings." So (almost) ends Bring Up the Bodies: a final flourish that now applies to their creator too.

After her popular and merited Man Booker victory in 2009 with Wolf Hall, the chances of Hilary Mantel prevailing again with a second novel about Thomas Cromwell and the subtle, savage manoeuvres at the Tudor court of the 1530s looked unimaginably remote.

A pair of predecessors have won the Booker twice (J M Coetzee, Peter Carey) – but with a sequel, after three brief years, and for the middle passage in a trilogy? These were the kinds of odds that Mantel's Cromwell, the beaten Putney blacksmith's boy turned Machiavellian chief minister of Henry VIII, delighted to overturn.

How did Mantel pull off such a coup – ultimate proof that the prize rewards the year's best novel in the judges' eyes, not some strategic assessment of past performance and future prospects?

Her language, crisp, fierce and free of period kitsch, remains an utter delight. Cromwell, that emotional black lake where monsters dwell, if anything deepens in nuance and complexity as he plots the downfall of Anne Boleyn. That flesh-creeping sense of this convulsive epoch as a template for modern state terror and state control intensifies.

Other shortlistees might have made worthy victors – Will Self, Deborah Levy, Tan Twan Eng – but they unluckily faced the Cromwell steamroller on its second run. In her trilogy's final section, how can Mantel possibly top this?

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