Hilary Mantel's remarkable novel WOLF HALL, a sweeping story of political one-upmanship behind the arrases at the Tudor Court will be released on Tuesday, October 13.
Winner of Britain's prestigious Man Booker prize, the novel is certainly my cuppa. For one thing, I love "voice-y" writing. And Mantel tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, the self-made son of a violent Putney brewer and blacksmith, in the third person present tense, most often referring to the protagonist, one of history's more famous anti-heroes, as "he." It gives the novel a simultaneous sense of immediacy and distance, a seemingly oxymoronic balance that is hard to strike; yet Mantel finds that razor's edge and remains there for 532 pages. There are a few drawbacks to this tone, however. Since there are several scenes where more than one man is in the room, referring to Cromwell as "he" occasionally makes for confusion, and I have found myself needing to re-read passages to make sure I know who's talking. Knowing who's talking is exceptionally important in a world where one's political and religious opinions can be calculated by scant degrees.
The novel is full of sly wit and "in-jokes" for those well versed in the Tudor era, in that Mantel makes excellent use of actual historical events, weaving them seamlessly and plausibly into her epic (which at 532 pages, it certainly is), as well as employing, verbatim, remarks actually uttered by the players, though she will sometimes shift the location, timeline, and context to suit her own purposes as a storyteller. However, that's why they call it historical fiction. And Mantel skillfully flashes her license to invent.
I have fewer than 200 pages still to read; thus far, there isn't a single likeable person in the book among the key players. And yet it is a testament to Mantel's craft as a writer that the novel is a page-turner nonetheless. Mercifully, she does not sanitize the personalities of the historically objectionable or complex. In fact, for her own purposes, she does the opposite in some cases, inverting the long-held image of Sir Thomas More as a saintly and principled man, and instead turning him into a religious zealot as bloodthirsty as his adversaries. He scourges, tortures and burns those who deny that the host is the literal body of Christ and who disseminate copies of the Bible in English. Mantel's More is a perfectly plausible creation, and who's to say that he is not more "real" than the venerated image in the history books? And yet you wonder why history lauds him while it (with good reason) castigates her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell,
Obviously all of the players are long dead. Readers who are well versed in Tudor history know how they died as well as the circumstances of their demise. Cromwell rises here, and we will leave him at the apex of fortune's wheel ... but he, too, will fall -- as hard as many of those he mocks, including Thomas More.
I have much, much more to say about WOLF HALL, and hope to get it posted by the book's release date. I am not sure that the book will be as much of an enjoyable read to those who get their Tudor history via half-dressed actors on Showtime, or who are not terribly familiar with the actual events of the era and the identities of the key players, their relationships with the king, Henry VIII, and with each other. In Mantel's novel, many characters rise to dizzying heights on the wheel of fortune; and it enriches the experience of reading WOLF HALL to be grounded in 16th century English history, and therefore to be aware of how the characters tumbled as the wheel spun downward, and who was standing behind them waiting to reap the benefits of their demise. It makes the read that much more delicious to know that Cromwell derides those who we know will outlive, outplay, and outlast him.