Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
HarperCollins, 650 pages

Reading books that have won the Booker Prize always leaves one to decide if they have entered the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes. There, as fairy tale devotees will recall, con men trick an Emperor into thinking he has a glorious new outfit made of invisible thread. When he strolls down the street naked, his subjects all pretend they can see the glorious clothes. Only a child has the bravery to admit the truth. When reading a Booker Prize winning novel, then, each reader must decide if they are dealing with a book made of invisible thread. If so, what then? Do you react as the child? Or as the subjects who stood on the street?

For me, "Wolf Hall" is not necessarily a suit of clothes made from invisible thread, but nor was it the glorious outfit everyone has celebrated. It is certainly a remarkable achievement for Hilary Mantel, who vividly creates the world of 16th century England and maintains a practiced control over a vast array of characters. The dreamy, lyrical prose is accomplished and her decision to write the novel in present tense gives the tale an immediacy that adds tension to moments that might otherwise have been banal.

Such tension, however, is not to be found in the novel's plot, which is familiar for anyone who has seen a season of The Tudors or the Robert Bolt play A Man for All Seasons: we are in the court of Henry VIII and the king, desperate for a male heir, is going to threaten all of Christendom so he can marry his mistress, Anne Boelyn. It's such well trodded territory, although everyone who walks down it always tells it from a different point of view. The Tudor's focus is Henry; Robert Bolt's was Thomas More. Phillipa Gregory, in her novel The Other Boelyn Girl attacks the subject from the viewpoint of Anne Boelyn's sister Mary. Meanwhile, the film Anne of a Thousand Days urges one to sympathize with Anne herself.

As for Hilary Mantel, her focus is Thomas Cromwell, one of the chief ministers in Henry's court. It's a good vantage point, especially since Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who managed to manoveur his way to the king's right hand side. Mantel's Cromwell is certainly a unique creation, but ultimately unable to sustain interest for six hundred and fifty pages. It's entirely possible that this is a case of familiarity breeding boredom (I've also read Antonia Fraser's The Wives of Henry VIII). This may have made it impossible for me to ever become truly engaged.

At the same time, it seemed that this very familiarity is what allowed the narrative to be easily understood. Wolf Hall proceeds at a dreamlike, sometimes languid pace. This is not a book for the faint of heart. It requires patience and, sometimes, an encyclopedia. Mantel does not always make it easy for the reader to understand everything that is happening: it seems that it would be difficult to follow the book without at least some grounding in English history. This is a book that is utterly dependent on the reader's prior knowledge of its major events.

To assume anything of a reader is a dangerous game and a writer should ensure that a novel succeeds on both levels - that is, a reader unfamiliar with The Wizard of Oz can still enjoy Wicked. Similarly, one should be able to appreciate Wolf Hall without any knowledge of British History. I remain unconvinced that this is the case and for this reason, it's hard to recommend this novel without issuing a caveat.

It's equally hard, however, not to recommend a novel that has won both the Booker Prize and several fistfuls of rave reviews. Clearly the book has found an audience and it's possible the world is simply divided into two kinds of people: those who liked Wolf Hall and those who didn't. You should probably go decide for yourself which person you want to be.

1 comment:

  1. I'm just going to say it: a woman wrote this 650 page, allegedly dry and difficult history novel. That might be the reason why when one critic noticed it, the floodgates opened. My guess is that a large portion of the praise is to counteract the general tone of the industry- which is to ignore women writers.
    Evidence via depressing pie charts: