There is something reassuringly comforting in Hilary Mantel’s second Booker Prize — a feeling engendered by the knowledge that the judges were not influenced by a clutch of extraneous reasons. For instance, that she had won before (the only previous two-time winners in Booker history are J.M. Coetzee and Peter Carey), that she had won only recently (for Wolf Hall in 2009), or that her novel, Bring Up The Bodies, is the middle novel of a trilogy (and so, by some obscure yardstick of literary assessment, less deserving of awards). In a shortlist that included Will Self’s much-fancied and audaciously experimental Umbrella, it may be tempting to see Mantel’s historical fiction as the conservative choice. The truth, however, is anything but that, as Mantel has, through a combination of sheer erudition and talent for imaginative interpretation, recast the game of historical fiction. Far more complex than the frothy Jean Plaidy-esque accounts that we have come to associate with the genre, Mantel’s story is much more than a retelling; it is a reimagining that combines a flair for storytelling with a gift for interpreting history in a most compelling way.
Bring Up The Bodies, which spans a period of the few months leading up to the fall and execution of Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn, is a sharper and more immersive work than her monumental Wolf Hall. Told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to power on the back of Henry VIII’s royal favour, the two books take place against the tumultuous backdrop of the English Reformation. This is historical fiction with a point of view — the scheming Cromwell is pencilled in a sympathetic light while the saintly halo of Thomas More is redrawn as a ring of stubborn fanaticism. When Mantel is done with her third novel, called The Mirror And The Light, there seems little doubt that she would be regarded as having written one of the great epics of modern literature. “You wait for 20 years and then two come along at once,” she said in her acceptance speech. The humorous quip could well be an allusion to how late recognition has been in coming. After all, her A Place of Greater Safety, set during the French Revolution and woven around Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins, is another raw and compelling masterpiece. Her first attempt at a novel, Mantel began work on this at a time when historical fiction was well out of fashion and it took years for her to find a publisher. Meanwhile, she had begun to experiment with other genres and arguably lost her way somewhat. The two Booker prizes validate a great writer but also the recovery of her original voice.