A tale of political intrigue set during the reign of King Henry VIII won the prestigious Man Booker prize for fiction Tuesday.
Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" scooped the 50,000-pound ($80,000) prize. Mantel's novel charts the upheaval caused by the king's desire to marry Anne Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of royal adviser Thomas Cromwell.
Mantel's novel beat stiff competition from a shortlist that included previous Booker winners A.S. Byatt and J.M. Coetzee.
Mantel told a London audience that if winning the Booker Prize was like being in a train crash, "at this moment I am happily flying through the air."
The chairman of the Booker prize judges, James Naughtie, said the decision to give "Wolf Hall" the award was "based on the sheer bigness of the book. The boldness of its narrative, its scene setting ... The extraordinary way that Hilary Mantel has created what one of the judges has said was a contemporary novel, a modern novel, which happens to be set in the 16th century."
"Wolf Hall" depicts the chaos that results from the king's longing for a male heir — a desire that led him to leave his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn. The Vatican's refusal to annul the marriage led the king to reject the authority of the pope and install himself as head of the Church of England.
The book centers on the real-life figure of Cromwell, depicted as a ruthless but compelling polymath straining against the certainties of his age.
Mantel said Cromwell was the king's "chief fixer, spin doctor, propagandist for one of the most eventful decades of English history."
"He was a blacksmith's son who ended up Earl of Essex," Mantel told the BBC before winning the prize. "So how did he do it? That's the question driving the book."
The Guardian newspaper said Mantel "persuasively depicts this beefy pen-pusher and backstairs maneuverer as one of the most appealing — and, in his own way, enlightened — characters of the period." The Times of London called "Wolf Hall" a "wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle — one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too."
Both reviewers said they were disappointed to put the book down.
Mantel said it's no surprise we remain fascinated by the time of Henry VIII, recently depicted in TV series "The Tudors" and films like "The Other Boleyn Girl." She said the period "has everything. It has sex and melodrama, betrayal, seduction and violent death. What more could you hope for?"
Mantel, 57, is a former social worker and film critic who has written short stories, the memoir "Giving Up the Ghost" and novels including 2005's "Beyond Black," which was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction.
She spent five years writing Wolf Hall and is currently working on a sequel.
A Booker win all but guarantees a a big surge in sales. Last year's winner, Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger," has sold more than half a million copies and been translated into 30 languages. Janine Cook, fiction buyer for Waterstone's book store chain, said Mantel's work was already its best-selling work of all the books on the shortlist, calling it a "perfect winner."
The six shortlisted books included Coetzee's "Summertime," a fictionalized memoir in which a young English biographer works on a book about a dead writer named John Coetzee. The four other finalists were Byatt's "The Children's Book," Adam Foulds' "The Quickening Maze," Simon Mawer's "The Glass Room" and Sarah Waters' "The Little Stranger."
The prize is open to novels in English by writers from Britain, Ireland or the Commonwealth of former British colonies. Apart from South African Coetzee, all this year's finalists were British.
The award was founded in 1969 and was long known as the Booker Prize. It was renamed when the financial services conglomerate Man Group PLC began sponsoring it several years ago.