LONDON: Hilary Mantel is favoured to become the first woman to win the coveted Man Booker Prize for fiction twice, with her historical novel "Bring Up the Bodies" ahead of Will Self's "Umbrella" in the bookmakers' rankings.
The annual award, one of the world's most prominent literary prizes, will be handed out at a glitzy dinner in London on Tuesday, and the build-up this year has been dominated by 60-year-old Mantel.
She won the Booker in 2009 with "Wolf Hall", her acclaimed 650-page historical novel charting Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in King Henry VIII's court, and is in contention again for the sequel.
Were she to win, she would become not only the first female the "do the double" but also the first British writer. South Africa-born J.M. Coetzee and Australian Peter Carey have won the prize twice.
"There has been discussion, I know, about the pros and cons of Mantel advancing so far in the prize again so soon," Peter Stothard, chair of the Man Booker judging panel and editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said.
"The judges noted Mantel's even greater mastery of method now," he added.
Mantel could be back in the frame yet again in 2015, when the third and final instalment of her Cromwell trilogy, "The Mirror and the Light", is due to hit the shelves.
"MOVING AND DRAINING"
The author has admitted that despite the trilogy's critical and commercial success so far, much was still riding on the final chapter of a 10-year writing odyssey.
"If I get the third book right then in a sense my whole life will have come right," she told Reuters in June. "But if I don't, then I am going to see it as a failure. In my mind it is all one long project."
Self's Umbrella was described by Stothard as "both moving and draining", a reference to some 400 pages without paragraph breaks or chapter divisions.
But he added that the tale about a misdiagnosed woman in a north London mental hospital would prove "much less difficult than at first it seems" to those who stuck with it.
Mantel and Self have taken turns at the top of bookmakers' betting lists, with Mantel edging out Self in the latest odds offered by Paddy Power.
Bring Up the Bodies was favourite on Thursday with odds of 6/4, having leap-frogged Umbrella at 9/4 following "recent heavy betting" on the former, said spokesman Rory Scott.
The other four shortlisted writers are Deborah Levy ("Swimming Home"), Malaysia's Tan Twan Eng ("The Garden of Evening Mists") and first-time novelists Alison Moore ("The Lighthouse") and Indian author Jeet Thayil ("Narcopolis").
The winner of the Man Booker Prize receives a cheque for 50,000 pounds ($80,000), international literary kudos and, perhaps most importantly, a significant spike in sales.
Research by the Guardian newspaper showed that Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example, sold 35,900 copies before the award was announced and nearly 600,000 afterwards.
The year before, Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger" had sold just 5,703 copies before it won the Booker, rising nearly a hundredfold to 551,061 afterwards.