Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Wolf Hall | A (belated) review of Hilary Mantel's epic Booker winner | So what was all the fuss about?
Some books are like Mayflies. They are published and die in a day, their demise unnoticed by the greater world around them.
Others are more like giant tortoises, able to lumber on, chomping up the vegetation and enjoying the limelight for decades. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is one of those kinds of books.
When it won the booker in 2009 it was the bookies' favourite to do so -- and the bookies are almost never right with the Booker. It went on to become possibly the highest selling winner of all time (bone of contention: has it surpassed Life Of Pi, by Yann Martell, yet?).
Mantel wasn't a household name when Wolf Hall was released, not by a long shot. She had been nominated for the Booker once before and had built up a small but loyal following - a rare thing in modern literary publishing. Although her books didn't sell hugely, they did sell and were well received by the critics. She was known for dense but satisfying narratives.
Wolf Hall was considered a daring project. I don't think it is that daring.
It focuses on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's 'master secretary', a blacksmith's son who rose to be the most powerful commoner England had ever known -- eventually his Lord Chancellor and elevated to the Earl of Essex.
Far from being revolutionary, this throws us into familiar territory: Henry's affair with Anne Boleyn and the consequences for England. Modern day Britain has an obsession with Tudor England which matches Henry's obsession with 'the lady Anne'. Mantel herself describes it as a great historical soap opera and this I think is apt. Her novel skews the familiar story, telling it from an unlikely perspective.
From this point of view I couldn't help but compare it with Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl (also a film, of course). The overlap in terms of events is huge: Mary Boleyn is significant to Thomas Cromwell, Mantel has her flirting with him and even suggesting marriage. In Wolf Hall there is also a proposal that she marry Cromwell's son.
What I found surprising was that I found myself thinking more highly of Gregory's work as I read Mantel's, whose prose truly is dense. The problem is, I'm not sure how satisfying I found it. Cromwell is certainly intriguing, but there were times when I wondered if she couldn't convey his complexity a little more, er, simply. What really surprised me was that the narrative gets bogged down in the history. I thought Mantel would have avoided that. And there are times when the blizzard of names -- aristos tend to have at least two -- becomes overly confusing. Added to that is the use of 'he' to denote Cromwell... this is one of the most preposterous and frankly pretentious aspects of the book.
I finished the book admiring Cromwell, but far from loving him. He is a ruthless man in ruthless era.
The real oddity is the story arc. Someone can perhaps explain it to me: the book takes in Henry's marriage to Anne, the birth of Elizabeth, her failed next pregnancy, Mary Boleyn's decision to flee the court (where she is effectively being kept as the king's concubine) and ultimately the fall of Thomas More -- who is executed on charges Cromwell comes up with.
Yet It felt oddly like a fragment rather than a completed narrative (though at 650 pages a very big fragment).
Mantel is apparently planning at least one more book to take us up to Cromwell's own execution in 1540, six more years, but at this rate she might be writing another ten. I wonder how many Wolf Hall buyers will stick to the end of her story: I'd say a fraction.