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Friday, November 6, 2009

2009 Booker Prize Winner "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Hilary Mantel at Wikipedia
Order Wolf Hall Here
Watch the Author Reading an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION: This year's Man Booker shortlist about which I did an earlier post turned out to contain several books of great interest to me including the eventual winner.

"Wolf Hall" by H. Mantel is historical fiction with strong sff associational ties in superb world building and deep immersion in a distant but also familiar universe. I found myself in complete agreement with noted sff critic and writer Adam Roberts' claim about "Wolf Hall":
"if Mantel had tossed in a dragon or two, she'd have been a shoo-in for the British Fantasy Award", so unbelievably good is the recreation of 16th century England here.

While Ms. Mantel has written quite a few novels prior to this one, the only one I have previously read is the extraordinary "A Place of Greater Safety" about the life of an young man and his closest two friends who just happen to play an unexpectedly important role in history. I read the 750+ page "A Place of Greater Safety" several times across the years since its US publication in the mid-90's, most recently after finishing "Wolf Hall" this October and while "Wolf Hall" is clearly more accomplished as fiction, "A Place of Greater Safety" is still the more interesting one for me.

"Wolf Hall" stands at a more modest 550+ pages but in another sff tradition it is just the first part of a planned duology that follows the life and career of
Thomas Cromwell the (in)famous minister of Henry VIII and architect of the English Reformation. "Wolf Hall" follows Thomas from his very unpromising beginning as the abused son of a violent village blacksmith to his rise in Chancellor Wolsey service and later in the king's council.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Since the Tudor era is not one of my main interests in history/historical fiction, I have waited for the US release and a chance to browse "Wolf Hall" before deciding if I want to read it. However the moment I opened it, I was hooked and I *had* to get it then and read from it in any free time I had. Because the novel is dense and relatively long, it took me several days to finish it, and while the last 100 pages are a bit too much of a filler for the next volume and should have been done in 50 maybe, the first 450 or so are almost perfect.

The novel alternates pov very frequently, switching from Thomas third person (usually denoted by "he") to various characters which are generally named ("Anne", "Wolsey") sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, so it requires constant attention.

The cast is panoramic though one surprise I had was the relative lack of centrality of Henry VIII, whom despite being the focus of so much of the attention of the characters, is present relatively less directly in the book, though some of the scenes with him are truly memorable.

Outside Thomas Cromwell who is an absolutely fascinating though still mysterious character - even after 550 pages - the main "historical" characters are Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, while we get less than a flattering picture of the "sainted" Thomas More who is busy burning heretics and using any means to obtain the necessary proofs for that. After all in More's vision a promise or even an oath to a heretic is not binding...

In contrast Cromwell is pragmatic and wants to advance himself and England, while he protects as much as he can the protestant inclined theologians, booksellers and printers. Also the family life of the two is sharply contrasted again in a surprising way at least from the usual conventional story we "know"...

Anne is less fascinating than I expected though she is believable as holding Henry's interest for so long and finally getting her wish of becoming Queen with Cromwell's help, wish that of course means the split with Rome since the only way Henry can get a divorce from Catherine the aunt of the powerful king of Spain and "jailer" of the Pope is by essentially granting one himself.

This passage which in many ways is the crucial one of the book at least for the political/religious action shows Cromwell at his best in helping Henry take the necessary decisive step:

"‘But why now?’ Hen­ry says, rea­son­ably enough. ‘Why does he come back now? I have been king for twen­ty years.’

He bites back the temp­ta­tion to say, be­cause you are forty and he is telling you to grow up. How many times have you en­act­ed the sto­ries of Arthur – how many masques, how many pageants, how many com­pa­nies of play­ers with pa­per shields and wood­en swords? ‘Be­cause this is the vi­tal time,’ he says. ‘Be­cause now is the time to be­come the ruler you should be, and to be sole and supreme head of your king­dom. Ask La­dy Anne. She will tell you. She will say the same.’"

But "Wolf Hall" is not only about politics and religion; there is a lot about "regular" people and their life in the 1520-30's London and the action of the book takes place all over England with sojourns in Italy, France and the Low Countries too.

I will close this review with another quote, this time from the very beginning of the novel and showing Thomas' "people skill" again at his best, while we can infer quite a lot about the world of the novel from it too:

"He sees three el­der­ly Low­lan­ders strug­gling with their bun­dles and moves to help them. The pack­ages are soft and bulky, sam­ples of woollen cloth. A port of­fi­cer gives them trou­ble about their doc­uments, shout­ing in­to their faces. He lounges be­hind the clerk, pre­tend­ing to be a Low­land oaf, and tells the mer­chants by hold­ing up his fin­gers what he thinks a fair bribe. ‘Please,’ says one of them, in ef­fort­ful En­glish to the clerk, ‘will you take care of these En­glish coins for me? I find them sur­plus.’ Sud­den­ly the clerk is all smiles. The Low­lan­ders are all smiles; they would have paid much more. When they board they say, ‘The boy is with us.’

As they wait to cast off, they ask him his age. He says eigh­teen, but they laugh and say, child, you are nev­er. He of­fers them fif­teen, and they con­fer and de­cide that fif­teen will do; they think he's younger, but they don't want to shame him. They ask what's hap­pened to his face. There are sev­er­al things he could say but he se­lects the truth. He doesn't want them to think he's some failed rob­ber. They dis­cuss it among them­selves, and the one who can trans­late turns to him: ‘We are say­ing, the En­glish are cru­el to their chil­dren. And cold-​heart­ed. The child must stand if his fa­ther comes in the room. Al­ways the child should say very cor­rect­ly, “my fa­ther, sir”, and “madam my moth­er”.’"

Highly, highly recommended and while "The Children's Book" (FBC Rv) still holds the sweet spot as my favorite book of 2009, "Wolf Hall" is arguably the best novel I read this year


The Fantasizer said...

Great review, as always. Good to see that you're finally back to

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words.

I hope to have several more reviews in the next two weeks (ideally there will be five) since I read some more recent books that I enjoyed a lot as well as having two asap books I am waiting for, one in the mail from Book Depository should be here any day and will most likely be a review after reading and the other due next week and ending a series I liked more than I expected so far

I also want to do one or more capsule review of books I wanted to review but did not get to...

shaneo52 said...

Thanks for the review, glad to see you back, Liviu.

The Fantasizer said...

I just bought Wolf Hall thanks to your review, keep up the excellent work!
I am really excited to hear that you'll be picking up the pace.

Cindy said...

I have this on my TBR pile. I was always a fan of British history so I wonder how this will live up to what I know.

Mimouille said...

I am currently finishing Wolf Hall which I read mainly based on your review, and it is indeed a very interesting book. But I think you should have warned people that not only does it require constant attention, the nonacademic use of pronouns is very (intentionally) confusing. And I ask myself what it brings to the narration. So this book is very interesting but only for stubborn / patient readers, as the writing style might put off / annoy many...I will write a review soon.

Liviu said...

Once I got used with the narrative switches, I kind of enjoyed them but I see what you are saying.


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