Sunday, 9 January 2011

Wolf Hall - you get out what you put in...

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel (Fourth Estate: 2009). A historical novel following Thomas Cromwell as he rises from low born Londoner to the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s court. It charts history as the King splits from the Catholic Church, marries Anne Boleyn, and condemns Thomas More.

650 pages worth of Booker Prize winning historical fiction. Be still my beating heart...
I know, historical fiction often ends up lumped in with science fiction in the ever-so-slightly-too­-geeky category, but I’m a fan. So when Wolf Hall came up on my “Amazon recommends” list, it was an easy decision.
Now, in the vein of the principles of GBR, I’m going to try and take as objective a view of this as I can. I'll even spare you the historiography, and focus simply on the merits of the book as something worth spending your time on. It’s not “did I enjoy it,” but “do I think you’ll enjoy it?”
I think you will. And here’s why.
This is an incredibly rich book. It’s a novel that makes you remember how fulfilling reading a book can be if you give it enough of a chance.
It’s long, has lots of characters, and meanders its way through the life of the protagonist (Thomas Cromwell), and so I’ll be honest, my attention drifted at times. But it seemed that whenever I was in a quiet place with it, it excited me, enlightened me, saddened me, or amused me. Mantel had a lot to say, and she said it all very well.
And it’s not just the way she’s woven the story, it’s the way she writes that also sets this book apart. She includes a handful of intentional quirks of style that make the book enjoyable to read. It’s as if you’re getting used to the way someone speaks, and once you do you feel a bond with them. The book becomes individual and unique.
Mantel takes you into the pages of the book and makes you feel included in them; she trusts you to infer parts of the story. She builds the narrative as much through explicit explanation as by mutual understanding with the reader. It’s a rare skill, and one that makes Wolf Hall difficult to put down – after all, how can you put down something that you’re playing a role in creating?
What about downsides? Well, if you know anything about your history, you can forget about any major twists in the storyline. By focussing on such public figures, Mantel forgoes any hope of really surprising the reader with a big reveal or an unexpected turn. Not that it seems to matter.
Mantel is also a little clumsy in her portrayal of Jane Seymour. Knowing she plays such a huge part in the story of Henry VIII (albeit after the timeline of Wolf Hall,) it’s a little frustrating not to hear more from her. Not that that seems to matter either.
The only thing that may matter in the debit column is the sheer ambition of the book. It’s long. And it covers a lot of ground. And so it shouldn’t be picked up as a casual read. It requires you to invest a little in it, which (as I’ve said) is a big strength, but can also be a little tiring when you just want to kick back and rattle through a few pages.
So where do we end up? A brilliant book, that makes you feel good about reading, but could also make you feel in need of a nap at times. The sum total is a score of...
Definitely a book worth spending your time on, but only if you have quite a bit of it to spend. Now I’ve finished it, I’m off to watch something mindless on TV.
Buffy, anyone?

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