5.18.2013

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, has earned a lot of critical attention since it's been written. Not only did it win a Booker Award, but it's sequel won one the next year. I picked it up with a lot of anticipation. I even studied up on the main characters Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Mary Boleyn, and Sir Thomas More before I started to read it.

It's a good thing I did, because Wolf Hall assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. (Probably because the author is British.) As I read it, I was reminded of nothing so much as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Cromwell reads like he's unstuck in time. Wolf Hall begins chronologically enough. We meet Cromwell as a very young man in Putney, being beaten horribly by his father. He runs away and finds room on a ship headed for the Netherlands. By the time we see him again, he's a rising merchant and Cardinal Wolsey's man. Overall, the plot follows the history of Henry's quest for a divorce up to 1533, but it drifts back and forth across Cromwell's life. We see him at his home in Austen Friars with his family. We see him consoling Cardinal Wolsey as Wolsey falls from favor. We see him been taunted by Thomas More. My brushing up paid off in spades here because the book is written so it's hard to keep everything in your head.

While I enjoyed the witty dialog and historical accuracy, the book's style made this book a chore for me to get through. Mantel focuses more on events that surround the main religious and political crisis--you know, what you'd expect the book to focus on. It frustrated me that every time the characters' conversations would get down to actual decisions, Mantel cuts away. So while Mantel shows us Cromwell rising and rising through the ranks, it almost seems that suddenly Katherine of Aragon is shunted aside, then boom! Anne and Henry secretly marry in Calais, then bam! Anne is pregnant. It's like watching a documentary in which the camera man was always a little too late to capture the action. And then Christopher Nolan edits it as though it's Memento.

I read a few of the reviews for this book in The New York Times and The Guardian to see what I was missing. The reviews for this book are just glowing. They enjoyed the fresh take on Cromwell. In other depictions, Cromwell is a villain and More the saintly hero. In his version, More is warped by religion and petty and sanctimonious. Cromwell is a pragmatist, not hung up on points of religion. Mantel portrays Henry as a man, rather than a complete horndog. Anne, rather than a being a Venus, becomes more of a villain who uses every one of her wiles to be queen. She is utterly ruthless. After hundreds of years of hearing the same narrative, I can understand that a new look at the main players is appreciated.

The biggest issue that I have with the book is the way it's written. Wolf Hall is not a book you can just sink into and be transported to the sixteenth century. (Which is what I was looking for.) I kept reading the book because of my declaration a few months back about why you should read challenging books and I didn't want to be a hypocrite about one more thing. I did learn from this book. It was worth my time. I just didn't enjoy reading it.

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