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Coetzee fails, but still the greatest?

By Branko Brkic 7 October 2009

The 2009 Man Booker Prize goes to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the bookie’s favourite. JM Coetzee, who was nominated for his fictionalised memoir Summertime, is unlikely to lose sleep over it.

He was the only non-Brit on this year’s shortlist. He had won the prize twice before. He has a reputation for being reclusive, which he confirmed by not pitching up at the lavish awards banquet. It’s impossible to know whether he cares that he didn’t win, but the chances are he’s not all that devastated this morning.

JM Coetzee’s failure to secure the Man Booker Prize for a record third time – he won with Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and again with Disgrace in 1999 – should not detract from his status as one of the greatest writers alive. The Nobel laureate’s standing is unassailable almost everywhere but the land of his birth, where soon after the publication of Disgrace he was branded a racist by the ruling ANC. (He has since given up Cape Town for Adelaide, Australia, but surely now realises that it’s also the fate of banks to be branded racist, so perhaps he’ll come home soon.)

In the event, the 2009 Booker went to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the 8/13 bookie’s favourite and the title that attracted at least 80 percent of the betting. A 650-page novel based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII, Wolf Hall has garnered the sort of popular and critical acclaim that saw it marked as a potential winner from the time it first appeared on shelves.

Aside from Coetzee’s Summertime, the third in a series of fictionalised memoirs that began with Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002), the other also-rans on this year’s shortlist were Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Adam Foulds’s The Glass Maze, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.

Read more: Guardian, Irish Times

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