Monday, August 22, 2011

Athena K's review - Wolf Hall

Well, I finally finished with Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.  I had been saving this as sort of a reward for slogging through other Booker books that I wasn't as excited about in advance (e.g. Vernon God Little).  But I am surprised--while I certainly appreciate aspects of this novel, it just wasn't a very fun or satisfying read for me.  I guess this is what I get for setting expectations.

By far, the best part of Wolf Hall is Thomas Cromwell, the most modern man in England.  I am a true fan of historical fiction, and I have read numerous novels set in Tudor England (plus the HBO series The Tudors is one of my guilty pleasures) so the "plot" and many of the issues of the day were not new for me.  However, it was incredibly new to feel sympathy and appreciation for the often-villanized Thomas Cromwell.  I call Mantel's Cromwell the "most modern man in England" because he is able to break the bonds of class, free himself from the Church, and profit from modern notions of banking, statesmanship and commerce while nearly all of the other characters struggle with their just-out-of-the-middle-ages mentalities.  The London of his era is in many ways stuck in darkness:

And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city's uncounted populations of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, four-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks' bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless padding feet; limestone or leaden, metaled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.
Yet Cromwell's attitudes are contrasted with the London of his era.  He has traveled extensively in Europe and been exposed to the Italian and Flemish Renaissance cultures.  He is fascinated with a "machine" that would assist the user in memorizing all of the written works in the entire world.  He teaches his daughter Greek and teases her about being the Mayor of London one day.  And yet he is a caring, sensitive-souled person, who navigates beautifully between the fickle moods and treacherous hearts of the residents of King Henry VIII's court.  I could read about this Thomas Cromwell all day.

But I'm not sure that I could read Hilary Mantel's unique style for much longer.  My complaint is something many reviewers have noticed - the indefinite use of pronouns.  Although Cromwell is clearly the main character, and the narration includes his thoughts that are not spoken aloud, Cromwell is almost exclusively referred to as "he" - even when there are any number of men in a scene or referenced in prior sentences that are also "he."  Accordingly, I frequently found myself having to flip back a page (or several pages) to identify the speaker.  While some have suggested this is Mantel "making us work" for her book, I found it to be very tedious and it distracted me from the characters and story.  For me, it just seemed like incorrect grammar.  Coupled with her sometimes distracting alteration between using quotation marks for dialogue and then not (without any discernable rhyme or reason), I found the experience of reading about this wonderful character to be lacking.

She does write many passages of perfect scene-setting description, and she has an ability to draw me back just as I am feeling like giving it a rest.  The first chapter is one of the most engrossing I have read of any Booker book so far.  But I am torn about whether I will read her sequel.


  1. I didn't enjoy this one as much as I had hoped either, it was a slog to get through it. Everyone was called Thomas as well, which didn't help!

    Here's my review, in case you wanted to have a look:

  2. It's quite a book, that's for sure! I liked it but it was a tough read!

  3. Sam - Great review! I'm going to peruse some of your other reviews - seems like we felt the same way about this one!

  4. Thanks Athena - to be honest I didn't finish Wolf Hall when I attempted it and had a chuckle (or inner glow) reading your review. My copy of "Derby Day" from the 2011 long list has just turned up and there is a snippet of a review by Hilary Mantel on the back cover - it in itself is almost unreadable. I don't know if I'll ever slog my way through "Wolf Hall".