The latest major award to be given in this season of literary prizes was the Man Booker which was announced yesterday. And, wonder of wonders, it was given to an author and for a book that I had actually read and loved. Hilary Mantel won for Bring Up the Bodies, the second in her three book series about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. I thought it was a wonderful book, even better than Wolf Hall, the first in the series which also won the Man Booker for 2009. (My review is here.)
Mantel is, of course, an amazing writer of historical fiction. She brings the past to life and makes her characters fully informed human beings, not just cardboard cutouts. She has even managed to make Thomas Cromwell, who has been somewhat notorious for his Machiavellian manipulations in Henry's court, into a rather sympathetic character. We can begin to understand just what motivated him and perhaps what he had hoped to achieve as minister. Now that she has brought us to this point, we can only look forward to the third in the series, which I assume will cover Cromwell's bloody downfall. It may well be a wrenching read and yet I can hardly wait!
I can't imagine any book was more worthy of this literary prize than Bring Up the Bodies, but, on the whole, I think judging one literary work (or any work of art, for that matter) against another is a very chancy thing. It has to be subjective and what is very meaningful to me might leave another reader cold. My husband, for example. We both enjoyed reading C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series, which includes Thomas Cromwell as a historical character, and so, when I finished reading Wolf Hall, I recommended it to him, thinking he might enjoy a different perspective on Cromwell. He hated it! I think he may have read twenty pages before he gave up on it. (I've just about stopped recommending anything to him. Who knows what the cranky old man likes?)
But the point that I was trying to make before I digressed into the mysteries of my domestic life is that there were five other books that were on the short list for the Man Booker prize: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng; Swimming Home by Deborah Levy; The Lighthouse by Alison Moore; Umbrella by Will Self; and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. I haven't read any of them yet and there are some of the writers that I'm not familiar with at all. How do I know that one of them might not be an even more amazing and worthy book than the Mantel work? And if I read one of them on any given day it might well be more meaningful to me.
A lot depends on where the reader is in his/her own life when he/she reads the book. And that really is one of the things that makes reading such an exciting and interactive enterprise. Getting to know a previously unknown writer can be a real adventure and sometimes a challenge, not unlike making a new friend. It can be a risky business but definitely worth the trouble, even when the relationship doesn't work out.
As for awarding literary prizes, though, if I were a judge, I'd probably never be able to make a decision. Even when people sometimes ask, "What's your favorite book?" I really have no answer. Well, today my favorite book is The Sense of an Ending, but who knows what it will be tomorrow? No, I'd never make it as a literary judge.