Monday, May 27, 2013

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

"Already there are too many books in the world. There are more every day. One man cannot hope to read them all." So says Henry VIII, and yet I spent a full month reading this one. I can't explain what was so compelling about a book that confounded me at every turn, but I kept plugging away at it despite the bewildering number of characters who all shared just a handful of first names, and the unclear pronouns that made it impossible to know who the hell was speaking at any given time.

Thank goodness I've watched the tv series The Tudors or else I'd have been far more confused. The inexplicably-titled Wolf Hall closely follows Thomas Cromwell during the period in which Henry VIII tires of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marries Anne Boleyn amid a great deal of political and religious machinations. It was very long, yet covered such a short period that Anne Boleyn was still alive at the end of the novel.

The most frustrating aspect of this novel is that Mantel almost always refers to Thomas Cromwell only as "he." This is especially confusing when there are other male characters in the scene who are also being referred to because there was nothing to clarify whether the "he" was whatever guy had been just previously mentioned, or Cromwell. Seriously, Hilary Mantel, what exactly were you trying for here? I understand sacrificing a bit of clarity for a larger gain, but here the constant use of "he" achieves nothing. It's not as though it made the writing more poetic or captured something that just saying "Cromwell" could not.

Even when names were used, it was still confusing since everyone in the novel seemed to be a Thomas or an Anne or a Henry. I realize it's based on history and these were the actual names, but it is fiction so would it hurt mix things up a little, or at least specify which Thomas or Henry was being referred to?

Now, it's not all bad or else I wouldn't have made it through at all. Had it been tighter, shorter and more clear, it would have been a very strong book. Thomas Cromwell was a fascinating and well-developed character, and I particularly liked the memory system he learned in Italy, and which I learned from reading Moonwalking with Einstein. There was a great smattering of dry humor, and I hope that henceforth when I cry out in frustration it is to say "Oh, by the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus!" Descriptions of everyday life were tangible, bringing the historical setting alive. And there were some examples of really lovely writing: "Rumors crop up in the short summer nights. Dawn finds them like mushrooms in the damp grass." I wish there had been more of that and less of all the things I didn't like.

I'm mystified at all the amazing reviews and awards this book received. The NY Times review said: "Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike." I cannot disagree strongly enough. The Guardian calls it "lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written" and says the "reader finishes wanting more." It's like I read a completely different book. But this is why I tend to shy away from award-winners and highly-praised literary fiction. I frequently end up reading through reviews afterward, trying - and failing - to figure out why everyone loved the book so much.

The only reason I even read Wolf Hall is because really want to try the follow-up Bring Up the Bodies. There's no reason, of course, to read the first one since I've watched the tv show and can look up any history I need (I won't even pretend to actually know it). I can't explain why I was so compelled to read this first. The sequel is apparently written in a much more clear style without the confusing Cromwell "he," and it's shorter, so there's hope I'll like it a lot better. Of course I'll tell you all about it. Mostly, after reading Wolf Hall for a solid month, I'm just happy to finally be free of it.

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