Thursday, January 31, 2013
Costa Book Award: who would dare refuse Hilary Mantel her crown?
Photo: David Rose
So it's Hilary Mantel, again. Bring Up the Bodies has won the overall Costa Book Award following Mantel's Man Booker victory in 2009 for Wolf Hall, and the same award for its sequel last year. It has beaten not only all the other novels of 2012, but also the best poetry collection, biography, first novel and children’s book. Mantel’s all-conquering Tudor saga, which last year sold 313,000 copies in this country, is well on the way to becoming a classic with a BBC and RSC adaptation already in the works.
Inevitably there will be grumbles from the sceptics. Was there really no other novel published in 2012 to compete with Bring Up the Bodies? How did Zadie Smith’s NW, her most accomplished work to date, miss out on even a measly shortlisting? What about Nicola Barker’s eccentrically hilarious The Yips? Then there are the whispered doubts about Bring Up and the Bodies itself. Longtime Mantel readers say her darkly experimental Beyond Black was a superior book. And does the Tudor setting with its familiar historical characters – Henry VIII and all that – make its popularity a form of easy nostalgia?
Maybe there’s some truth to that. The richness of its language and psychological penetration cannot hide the fact that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies can be read as posh Philippa Gregory. I cannot also help thinking that given its now near-canonical reputation, the judges might have been a touch intimidated – refusing Thomas Cromwell, as the novels' readers will know, is by no means easy. One of the best other contenders, the graphic memoir Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, is beautifully done and highly original. But like the first novel category winner Francesca Segal’s The Innocents – an astute and well-crafted take on Jewish North London – I cannot honestly say it deserved to steal Mantel’s crown.
With Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel has relaxed into the sequence, writing with greater economy and wit. The false notes in Wolf Hall – too much love for Cromwell, too little for his rival Thomas More – were muffled in the sequel by Cromwell’s growing ruthlessness and More’s death. The sequence in which Henry VIII falls from his horse while jousting and is suspected dead is especially brilliant. Even though you know the real historical outcome Mantel, like Shakespeare in his history plays, puts you in the shoes of participants who cannot have known how things would turn out.
Most pleasing, though, is the sheer joy Mantel takes in writing the books – something shared by her many readers. When was the last time a prize-winning book doubled as a holiday treat?