Hilary Mantel and Will Self pull ahead in Man Booker Prize race

The winner of the prestigious Man Booker literary prize will be announced in London on the evening of Oct. 16.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Writers Hilary Mantel (l.), author of 'Bring Up the Bodies,' and Will Self (r.), author of 'Umbrella,' are considered the frontrunners for the Man Booker Prize.

The six-author contest for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction, awarded Tuesday night in London, is narrowing down to a two-author horse-race.

First-time nominee journalist Will Self and 2009 winner author Hilary Mantel are favored to win the coveted prize, one of English literature’s most respected. (Any doubts? Just check the myriad betting contests.)

Self is nominated for “Umbrella,” “a modernist tale spanning a century and following Audrey Death, a woman who falls into a coma at the end of World War One only to be awoken decades later when Dr. Zack Busner discovers a cure,” according to Reuters.

The book, which has no chapters and few paragraph breaks, has been alternately described as “sprawling,” “draining,” and “moving.”

Mantel is nominated for “Bring Up the Bodies,” a sequel to “Wolf Hall,” which won the Booker Prize in 2009. “Bring Up the Bodies” picks up where “Wolf Hall” left off, following the life of Thomas Cromwell in the backdrop of King Henry VIII’s court in 1535 as the king grows disenchanted with his second queen and Anne Boleyn prepares to stand trial.

Should Mantel win, she will be the first woman – and the first Briton – to win the Booker twice. Only South African J.M. Coetzee and Australian Peter Carey have achieved that feat.

Other nominees include Malaysian Tan Twan Eng is shortlisted for “The Garden of Evening Mists,” a tale about the sole survivor of a Japanese prison camp. Eng was nominated to the Booker longlist in 2007 with his debut novel, “The Gift of Rain.”

Playwright and novelist Deborah Levy delves into the harrowing world of depression in “Swimming Home,” which she describes as a “page-turner about sorrow.”

Two first-time novelists are also in the running this year. Indian writer and poet Jeet Thayil is nominated for his debut novel “Narcopolis,” set in a Mumbai opium house in the late 1970s. And short story writer Alison Moore is nominated for “The Lighthouse,” about a man haunted by his abandonment as a child who makes a life-changing trip to Germany to search for his past.

The prize always sparks plenty of debate – and betting. Last year’s contest, of which Julian Barnes was picked for “The Sense of an Ending,” was accused of being “dumbed down” after the chair of the jury said Barnes’s book was chosen for its “readability.”

This year’s list, reviewers say, is more adventurous. As is the betting. Bookmakers William Hill have made Self a 2/1 favorite with Mantel’s odds at 9/4. Moore and Eng are both 4/1, Levy 9/1, and Thayil 10/1, according to the UK’s Independent.

“This has been an exhilarating year for fiction,” judging panel chair Sir Peter Stothard told the Independent. “The strongest I would say for more than a decade. We were considering... novels, not novelists, texts not reputations. We read and we reread. It was the power and depth of prose that settled most of the judge’s debates.”

The final debate – who wins the 50,000 pound ($82,000) prize and the prestige that goes with it – is settled tonight.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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