Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coming soon ... my review of WOLF HALL

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.


Allie ~ Hist-Fic Chick said...

Great review, Leslie!! So great, in fact, that others feel the need to steal lines from it, perhaps?

I am so looking forward to reading this for myself. I have heard wonderful things, and you know how much I, too, value "voice-y" writing! Good to know that the Man Booker prize was well-deserved. Unlike some other prizes that have been dished out recently (ahem, Nobel Peace Prize), haha!

Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks for your comment, Allie! Who could you be referring to? Who could have so little personal integrity that they would feel the compulsion to be a word/idea rapist? May they never be so violated themselves.

I have fewer than 100 pages still to read in WOLF HALL and hope to finish the novel today. It's quite a literary mouthful as you know (and I'm eager to read your own opinion of the book). I post noted several pages so that I can refer to them when I write my final review/discussion. There is so much to chew on here; it's a very substantive, substantial read.

As for the Nobel Peace Prize ... well, it's a bit premature, of course. Sort of like an actor, though admittedly talented, willing a lifetime achievement Oscar for a very modestly sized screen resume (Heath Ledger, anyone?) Yeah, yeah, I know he didn't get that sort of statuette, but you know what I mean.

Ms. Lucy said...

Leslie, you make this book sound so interesting! I was offered this one for review but decided to pass cause of an already too full plate. I decided it would probably be too meaty for me to handle this month. Now, after this very enticing (partial) review, I'm intrigued and wish I hadn't so readily passed it on.
I look forward to your final thoughts and opinons:)
Have a great day!

Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks for the compliment, Lucy!

WOLF HALL is definitely a commitment of time and energy. A worthwhile one, certainly, but all of us have so much on our plate, it's unsurprising that we're able to read and review it with speed. You certainly can't speed-read this book! And, as I mentioned, there are occasions when you're not quite sure who's speaking and the information being imparted in the scene is too important not to know what each character's opinion of it is. So you need to go back a page and make sure you understand what's going on.

Not to mention that I have my own writing deadlines ... and a thorny little issue has been eating into my time and energy over the past several hours, so I'm not accomplishing as much today as I had intended.

But WOLF HALL is certainly worth the time invested in it. At least readers will get their money's worth: many pleasurable hours spent with the book in their hands ... a bang for their hard-earned buck, to be sure! But they should expect a multicourse banquet, not literary fast food!

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm reading a lot of good buzz about this book. It seems to be a fresh look at the Tudor era, through the eyes of someone who was not Henry's wife or mistress. I can hardly wait for this to come out. I'll look forward to reading your complete review, too.

Leslie Carroll said...

Christine, it is indeed a very original and refreshing take on the era; because Cromwell is the narrator we are taken into the places where the wives and mistresses (and even Anne Boleyn) are ordinarily personae non grata; into the slippery recesses of the corridors of power and into the thoughts of the men who set the rules and who, with impunity, seek to change them. Some are true believers and others are masters of expedience, their eyes on the highest rung of the ladder and their consciences fluid and malleable, as circumstances dictate.

Anonymous said...

Which makes it even more fascinating, because I think we're used to seeing this era of history only through the eyes of those seeking power/money/titles. As you say, some were "crusading" as true believers of their causes, and this often gets overlooked.

Some people seek fortune and power...some act upon deeply held beliefs......hey! the world hasn't changed one bit!

Leslie Carroll said...

It's fascinating because some of her characterizations are so complex, which makes them all the more plausible. As I mention in my preliminary review, Mantel's Thomas More is brutal and violent and no contemporary reader can excuse his behavior. And yet, as she makes clear in a tense stand-off scene in the last fifth of the novel between the two Thomases, Cromwell and More -- More has an unshakeable belief and a conscience, which is of course, laudable, since most characters in this novel are lacking one.

Nevertheless, the reader cannot help but side with Cromwell when it comes to the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church at the time -- and yet is is Cromwell whose motives are impure. His god is money and power -- not so different, in fact, from those princes of the church. Cromwell makes the point that in the Bible Jesus never singled out one of his disciples and told him he would be the Pope as would his descendants, nor did Jesus give any of his followers permission to make laws, collect rents, decide who was born legitimate or a bastard ... it's really quite wonderful how Mantel can make such an unpleasant man appear on the side of the angels -- or not, as the literal case stands.

Of course, historically, Anne Boleyn was a genuine reformer. She wanted English subjects to have access to the Bible in their own language so that they could understand what the Word really was and not take some (often barely literate) priest's word for it. Indulgences? Pardons? None of it is in the Bible and she wanted her fellow men and women to understand that.

Cromwell, however, historically, could not really have cared less about that aspect of reforming a corrupt religion. He aimed to dissolve the monasteries and channel their wealth into the royal treasury thereby enabling Henry VIII to fund his wars, building projects, etc.

Mantel dramatizes that event gorgeously in the novel. Cromwell places the idea into Henry's head in such a subtle way that Henry thinks it's his own idea.

Leslie Carroll said...

Ms. Lucy: WOLF HALL is a dense and sophisticated -- and thoroughly enjoyable -- read. But all of us, myself included, have many things on our plates right now, or plates spinning in the air. Don't beat yourself up over declining to read the novel for review purposes.

It is, however, a worthy "pleasure read" when one has the time. Perhaps curling up in front of a fireplace with a brand during the long Canadian winter? :)