Wolf Hall. Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. A New York Times Bestseller. “Nothing short of astonishing.” —The Los Angeles Times. “A thrumming, thrilling read.”–The Miami Herald. “A startling achievement.”– The New York Review of Books.
You know when something is SO big, SO important, SO groundbreaking, SO astonishing that it is all anyone talks about? And you keep meaning to get to it because it is, truly, all anyone talks about? But you don’t for one reason or another and time passes…like a year…or four…and then the sequel comes out but you can’t read it until you’ve read the first even though the sequel is all the rage, too, and when you finally get to the original culture exploder, and you’re like….”Meh.”
That’s how I feel about Wolf Hall.
Now wait! Don’t leave the review just yet! I do not wish to scare those off who have not yet read it nor do I wish to offend those who agree with The New Yorker and The Washington Post Book World and People Magazine, among countless others. I enjoyed the book…after a fashion. It’s just it was so hyped up that my frustrations with it were magnified, compounded by the expectation that, as an intelligent person (and I do consider myself intelligent, though some may beg to differ), I was supposed to fall prostrate on the ground at the work of staggering genius that is Wolf Hall.
So let’s take it apart, shall we? There is no doubt that Hilary Mantel is an immensely talented, nay gifted, writer. She is the epitome of what Picasso meant when he said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” All of her weird sentence constructions, punctuations, inconsistent use of quotes for dialogue, it’s artistic. I don’t even cringe at her run-on sentences. There is purpose, there is thought, there is beauty.
Her Thomas Cromwell is a vastly complex and compelling character. As he should be since the book revolves around his life from roughly 1500 to 1535, the bulk of it from 1529 to 1535, and his role in the downfall of Sir Thomas More and the ascension of Queen Anne Boleyn. As a lover of all things Tudor (including the deliciously trashy The Tudors tv show), I enjoyed reading these familiar historical and fictional events from the perspective of an often overlooked character. Cromwell is fiercely intelligent, always a few steps ahead of everyone else, and deftly implementing his own agenda within Henry VIII’s government. He is a crafy, some might say amoral, man, and yet one can’t help but like Cromwell as Mantel imagines him. This is due to her mastery of setting up his background. The story begins with a young Cromwell bloodied and broken on the cobblestones, his alcoholic and abusive father standing over him, seconds from delivering another crushing kick. Knowing that and later seeing his devotion to his wife, sisters, and family, it is hard to dislike the man. (Alternately, I have rarely seen an account, fictional or otherwise, where Sir Thomas More is so hypocritically repugnant and unctuously vile as we see here.) From there, Mantel continues to layer on the complexity of Cromwell’s character, presenting the entire book from his 3rd person almost stream-of-consciousness perspective, and he emerges as a truly fascinating, fully realized three dimensional character.
However, now we come to a few of the problems. Every other character seems to be a flat archetype by comparison: The indulgent mentor, the faithful sidekick, the shrewish wife (Anne Boleyn, not Cromwell’s beloved Liz), the man terrified of aging, the boorish thugs. These characters are fuzzy in my mental image as I read, more like flickering shades than the characters themselves. Many other characters (and there are plenty, so many that Mantel includes a 5 page long cast of characters and 2 pages of family trees to help you remember who is whom before the book even begins) simply fade into the background. Which Richard are we talking about now? There are at least 5.
Complicating matters is that pesky 3rd person stream-of-consciousness perspective I mentioned. The book takes place in Cromwell’s mind, for lack of a better way to describe it. We see things as he does, think his thoughts, say his words. But rather than use first person, Mantel insists on 3rd. Cromwell is rarely named by other characters and never (logically) by himself. It is always “he.” And so, it is sometimes rather confusing to discern which “he” is the focus. After a while, I just accepted that if there was no name which the pronoun was modifying, it must be Cromwell. However, I found that to be incredibly frustrating and jarring, as it often took me out of the narrative and sent me down the path to find that elusive name to which the pronoun referred.
Finally, my last complaint is with the plot. Fantastic words were used by an entire army of knowledgeable publications to describe the thrilling, mile-a-minute plot. “Thrumming” was my particular favorite. Well, Miami Herald, you LIED! There were moments of sheer brilliance and true excitement, but for long stretches, it seemed that nothing happened. And when I say nothing happened, I mean Nothing. Happened. And so, it took me forever to read this book, which is not something I enjoy doing. If it takes me more than a month to read a book (which is a ridiculously generous time period to allow a book), it has become a chore. Now, to be fair, I attempted to read this book at a time in the semester when I had way too much going on. The few days I was able to sit down and actually read, rather than trying to get a few pages in before falling asleep with the lights on and the book falling halfway off the bed, I flew through large sections of the book and was quite compelled to keep reading. So my suggestion is: read this when you have time to really read. A few pages a night will not cut it.
Ultimately, I am glad I read this book. I feel like I can contribute to the discussion, albeit four years late, about a book that is clearly a new cultural touchstone. For clearly, this is the kind of book that will be in the literary and cultural conversation for years to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is already being used as a text by college English professors. And I think, despite my gripes, that I did enjoy it. And you will, too. So read it, and tell me what you think. Maybe you’ll love it or maybe you’ll hate it. And then we can read the sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, and continue the conversation.