Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Story of (I think it's fair to say) the rise of Thomas Cromwell, confidant of Henry VIII, during the period when Henry was trying to get rid of Catherine and get his marriage to Anne Boleyn sanctioned by the church.

More than one reviewer on Amazon commented on the difficulty of following who was talking, complaining that Mantel too often uses "he" to refer to the speaker, and causing the reader to have to work back through the text to work out which "he" is talking. Partly for that reason, I went for the audiobook. I think this helped, because I didn't find it overly difficult to follow who was talking most of the time, but I noticed at least a couple of occasions where the reader, who was "doing the voices", was a bit inconsistent in his accents (in one place he seemed to realise he'd made a mistake and changed accent part-way through an address).

Apart from that, before embarking on this book (~22 hours of it) all I knew was that it was long, that it had something to do with Henry VIII, and that it had won tons of awards. I sort of assumed, because of all the acclaim, that there would be something going on here to give the (relatively) familiar plot a post-modern twist. Maybe a parallel story in the present, like The French Lieutenant's Woman, or insights from the author as to how the plot was put together, like David Lodge.

But it didn't seem to be like that at all: it was "just" a story, and reminded me to start with more of Bernard Cornwell than Ian McEwan. It starts with scenes from Cromwell's childhood, skips briefly over a period when he's fighting for the French (I think) on the continent, and begins the story proper with Cromwell back in England and already in a position of influence.

But it wasn't quite like Bernard Cornwell either: the story wasn't nearly that exciting or gripping. And for the first several hours of the book I had a lot of trouble with it - my attention kept wandering and I had to rewind and listen again to sections I'd missed. But I persevered and eventually - and I can't quite work out what changed - I started to enjoy it and look forward to hearing more.

I think that part of the problem was that my expectations were confounded: the book simply wasn't written in a way that I'd expected. In fact, while it is "just" a story, the way it's told is to concentrate on scenes and episodes in Cromwell's life, which means that the main narrative isn't primarily focused on Henry's battles with the catholic church, or his wooing of Anne etc., except inasmuch as Cromwell knows about, and is sometimes on hand to witness some of the action. The author doesn't seem particularly concerned to explain what's happening, and the reasons for it happening: it seems to be meant to be implicit, or perhaps already understood.

I'm not sure if that's the intention, but I know that towards the end of the book, when Thomas More is opposing the King, and we know (well, I know, because I know what happened) that he's going to be executed, I found myself thinking "has it happened yet?" - I would not have been surprised to find Cromwell mentioning something in an aside which would have made clear that More had met his end, and that we were now some weeks after that event. Throughout the book it felt like some of the main historical action was taking place offstage.

I listened to "the author talks" thing which interviewed Mantel on the end of the audiobook, expecting that perhaps she'd explain this, but all she mentioned there was how much research she'd done in order to make sure her account was as historically accurate as possible.

It was quite interesting to have More cast as a rather unpleasant character - I'm familiar with "A Man for all Seasons", where he's heroically good, but in this book he's pretty unpleasant (he has the same integrity as regards his conscience, but he does some nasty things to heretics early on in the story). And I think the picture painted of Anne Boleyn in this book seems like it's quite realistic (compared to the one in "Anne of a Thousand Days").

So perhaps if I re-read it, I'd like it more: knowing as I do now what kind of writing it is. I did enjoy it, and in fact liked it so much I've ordered the sequel from the library. But it was a bit of a struggle at first.

Completed : 14-Jun-2013 (audiobook)

[nickoh] [2013 books] [books homepage]