Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
I've had this book a while; I got it in a set of books short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. I avoided it for a bit as it had won the Man Booker Prize and I've yet to have a great reading experience with a Booker book - I usually find them hard going. But, as I do love historical fiction and I'm on a week's holiday from work, I finally decided to give this one a shot.
Synopsis: The story of Henry VIII's divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn is the back-drop to the life story of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who managed to persuade and manipulate his way into becoming one of the most powerful men in England.
Score: 3 out of 5
This book had many strengths, the major one being Mantel's ability to make this much written about period of English history somehow seem fresh and modern. It didn't seem like a Phillipa Gregory style period romance, or even a period book at all - the characters all jumped off the page and events seemed immediate and compelling, even though everyone knows how it was going to turn out.
The character of Cromwell was a masterpiece, he was so complex and I loved how Mantel showed the distinction between what he was thinking and what he was saying as he slowly manipulated people and got his revenge. Although there was plenty of historical happenings and legal proceedings, these were interspersed with personal events from Cromwell's life, which gave the book a balance and broke things up a bit.
But there were definitely things I didn't like so much about the book. It was a hard slog - whilst I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was talking as others seemed to (the 'he' pronoun causing difficulties), it's the kind of book you have to concentrate on and be fully awake to read. I know a fair amount about this period of history but sometimes it was hard to follow all of the minor characters and the legal proceedings.
And one of the book's strengths was also it's biggest weakness - writing as Cromwell gave the book immediacy and something fresh, but it also meant there was no room for the back story of other characters. People going into a meeting don't spend twenty minutes reviewing the life stories of all the participants in their head beforehand, and if Mantel did so the book would have seemed a bit stuffy. Consequently, not at lot was explained and Mantel was relying on you knowing your history. I knew a bit about Cranmer and More, but not enough.
Now that I've finished it, I'm glad I read it, but it was hard going at times. It's like spring cleaning your house - you may find it boring at times and tough, but you love having everything sparkly clean once it's all done. There's a sequel on the way, not sure if I will pick it up or not.