21 September 2011

Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel

I knew quite little about Henry VIII (aside from the whole lots of wives, religion run amok thing), and basically nothing about Thomas Cromwell, his right hand man, before starting this book. And to be honest, I can't say that I learned that much about them. Wolf Hall lacks the astonishing density of A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel's novel about the French Revolution. You don't have as clear a sense of the overall historical moment. This kind of frustrated me, because it's such a fascinating historical period, and I'd LIKE to learn more about it. On the other hand, the characters in Wolf Hall are much more vivid and alive than those of Greater Safety. Cromwell, the centerpiece of the novel, is just wonderful. As my friend Ruchama said, you really just want to keep reading because he's so interesting and likeable. Not even really as a historical figure - just as a person. Meditative, sharp, ethical and fierce. He's a really fantastic character, and the main reason to read the book.

The plot arc of the novel, however, is decidedly less satisfying. About 2/3 of the way in, it seems, Mantel decides to make Thomas More into a counterfoil to Cromwell - he's been there all along, but suddenly he seems to be way, way more important. The ending is somewhat abrupt - the book is massively long, but it doesn't really have a plot arc, so there's no compelling reason why it should end at one moment instead of another. There are all kinds of people you know will turn out to be historically important, and are dying to spend more time with - this is where Mantel's skill in characterization sort of works against her - but you don't get to.

The big scandal around this book was that it won the Booker Prize over A.S. Byatt's Little Children. I haven't read the Byatt yet - it's on my shelf - but honestly, I don't think Wolf Hall is quite that spectacular. It's wonderful as a character study, but rather too long to be recommended solely on those grounds.

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