Friday, April 23, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I had mentioned in my post about The White Queen that I occasionally like to avoid more taxing reading material by diving into a world of harmless, mediocre historical fiction. I try not to make it too much of a habit, but I’m not going to beat myself over the head when my job does such a fine job of doing that for me. However, I am often surprised at the number of quality historical fiction authors there are out there. They clearly immerse themselves in research and not only entertain, but elucidate. You can close the novel, pick up a history book, and immediately identify with the time, making history just that much more understandable to the modern mind—all without relying on bodice-ripper tactics and other-worldly influences. Hilary Mantel is one of those authors.

Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, takes a markedly different approach to the turbulent Tudor era than most. Instead of taking place in the cushioned boudoirs of England’s ruling women, the reader spends most of the time in Thomas Cromwell’s odd little world, where a common blacksmith’s son is raised up to the highest political positions in the land. Cromwell is a walking, talking contradiction. A solid man covered in the scars of his many former trades, he blends in with the lily-white delicates of the English court. He is a former soldier and brawler, yet he conducts business with far more subtlety than nobles who have been bred to the position (most notably the bombastic Duke of Norfolk). He understands the machinations of Anne Boleyn, but seems completely mystified by the women in his own home.

Cromwell’s foil is Sir Thomas More (note: the sheer amount of Thomases in this book is ridiculous—so ridiculous that Cromwell wryly comments about it to himself), the world-renowned intellectual with a violent streak. Cromwell has the flexibility of mind to transfer his services from the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey to the king. More, unfortunately for him, sticks firmly to his worldview, one where everyone from the king down follows the True Church. Their wry interactions and respect-bordering-on-contempt for each other are almost touching, considering the two ultimately suffer the same fate.

The book isn’t without its flaws. Mantel’s cast of hundreds makes it difficult to follow without a background in this history or a very thorough viewing of The Tudors. She also uses the convention of referring to Cromwell as “he” constantly, never really mentioning his name unless another character utters it. I can understand her reasoning behind this style, as the reader can be totally immersed in the character, but it is terribly annoying. When Cromwell interacts with other male characters, which is most of the time, it’s crazy complicated keeping everyone straight. Yet, the book is a valiant work of seriously absorbing literature. I hear through the grapevine that Mantel will be coming out with a sequel, so my Kindle and I will wait with bated breath.

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