Wolf Hall: A Novel

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1) - Hilary Mantel I have friends who loved Wolf Hall (the majority) and a few who hated it, and having read this I can understand both reactions. The novel is centered on Thomas Cromwell, a minister of Henry VIII. I did like that Mantel doesn’t present him as the usual stock villain. The first chapter of about a dozen pages starts with him as a teen, running away from home to escape his abusive father. So from the very first paragraphs I felt a lot of sympathy for Cromwell. When we next see him 27 years later, Cromwell has built a life for himself as a lawyer and man of means and influence. Mantel continued to build that sympathy by presenting him as a loving husband and family man and loyal man to Cardinal Wolsey. Even so, Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell did often reveal a rather Machiavellian, or at least cooly pragmatic, mind. His foil in the novel is the sainted Thomas More, who Mantel often portrays in an unflattering light. Mantel gave us a bit of More’s famous admonition to a Cromwell come to power: “I hope you will tell the king what he ought to do, not merely what he can do. If the lion knew his own strength, it would be hard to rule him.” That seems revealing of the difference between the men--except Mantel’s Cromwell does have a moral core and human warmth. As someone familiar with the period through many a fictionalized account and even histories, I did relish the portraits, writ small and large, of various figures: the Boleyns, the Seymours, and other Tudor figures. Mantel’s portrait of say Mary and Anne Boleyn felt both plausible (much, much more so than Gregory’s in The Other Boleyn Girl) and yet her own. You can tell Mantel put a lot of research, and a lot of thought into this novel. So what were my reservations? In a word: style. This isn’t first person, but it’s almost written as if it were. Meaning that the pronoun isn’t “I” but “he” almost always refers to Cromwell. But not always. Later on she does differentiate with a “He, Cromwell.” But really, that’s awkward, and there’s a time honored solution for ambiguous subjects--the proper noun--and when you use it, keeping the pronoun is redundant. And Mantel is inconsistent in her use of quotation marks. They’re there, it’s not like she does a Cormac McCarthy, but sometimes they’re not. I found it irritating, because who was speaking was often as ambiguous as who was being referred to. (And we have a time-honored solution for that too--it’s called the dialogue tag.) Mantel also did odd things at times with the point of view, which even though pretty much third person limited, sometimes did things like drop in a “we” as if this were co-written by Cromwell and Mantel, or definitely read at times with touches of omniscient among the tight concentration on Cromwell and his thinking. Oh, and it’s all done in present tense. Something which taken alone doesn’t bother me. But all these other techniques together came across to me as amateurish, and yet you just know this was a very consciously chosen literary style, but to what purpose God knows--other than to alert the jury of the Man Booker Prize (which she was awarded), “Lookee here, I’m literary, I’m different! I’m not Philippa Gregory! I don’t cater to the masses!” A friend told me she did think the idiosyncratic prose style, especially the use of “he” contributed to Cromwell’s “interiority” and you do get used to it--you just have to keep in mind that “he” is almost always Cromwell. That peeve aside, this more than held me through its just over 600 pages, and I am planning to read the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, so yes what annoyed, though it lost the novel a star in my rating, didn’t lose me as a reader because I was so fascinated by Mantel’s delineation of characters and the times, so I begrudgingly didn't dock her further.