For once the oddsmakers got it right. "Wolf Hall," Hilary Mantel's novel about Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell, had been the bookies' favorite to win the 2009 Man Booker prize for fiction. The oddsmakers tend to be wrong more often than they are right, but this year they hit the nail on the head.
(The last time they got it right was in 2002 when "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel was both the projected and the actual winner of the Booker prize. The book went on to sell over a million copies.)
Mantel has led a varied life, both professionally and personally. Born in England, she has lived in both Botswana and Saudi Arabia. She is a novelist, short story writer, and a critic. Her works have ranged from memoirs to historic fiction.
She has been shortlisted for at least two major literary prizes (the Orange Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, both in 2006), but today's receipt of the prestigious Booker prize is sure to catapult her career to a whole new level.
"Wolf Hall" was reviewed by Janet Maslin in the New York Times this week. Maslin called the book an "arch, elegant, richly detailed biographical novel" and noted that the "bookâ€™s main characters are scorchingly well rendered."
Maslin hesitates, however, in assessing the appeal of "Wolf Hall" to American readers. She predicts that, "This witty, densely populated book may experience a rough passage when it crosses the Atlantic."
"For readers not fully versed in the nuances of Englandâ€™s tangled royal bloodlines, not amused by Ms. Mantelâ€™s deliberate obliqueness ('half the world is called Thomas,' the book observes, and it is in no hurry to differentiate one Thomas from another â€” or even to use proper names when a 'he,' 'him' or 'his' will do) or not even familiar with the effect of the law of praemunire on the papacy," Maslin writes, â€ś 'Wolf Hall' has its share of stumbling blocks."
The Booker prize, however, has a powerful pull. Last year's winner, "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga, went on to sell 500,000 copies worldwide and became a favorite at many US book clubs. In Britain, some booksellers say they expect "Wolf Hall" to go on to outsell "The White Tiger."
And despite its "highbrow reputation," book sales are what the Book prize is all about, prize director Ion Trewin told the TimesOnline. The Booker prize's purpose, he said, is â€śnot only to reward superb fiction but to encourage people to go out and read itâ€ť.