Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

I'm pretty sure this book didn't have as huge an emotional impact on me as it did on most people, because to me, the characterisations were not at all surprising. I studied Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More at University, and the way I learnt the story was that Thomas More was an evil, sadomasochistic jerk who just had pretty much the worst possible opinions about everything, and Thomas Cromwell was a boy who managed to go from being a blacksmith's son to the king's chief adviser. He was pretty much the first "self made man", and I always just assumed that everyone thought that he was a hero.

So, to me, the book was just a recycling of what I already thought. A really good recycling, don't get me wrong. I liked the book a lot. It's just that the book was supposed to be revalatory, but it wasn't. And the fact that I didn't realise it was supposed to be revelatory probably did impinge on my appreciation of the book. Because, apparently, the generally held view of Thomas More was that he was some hugely virtuous all-round-nice-guy, and that Thomas Cromwell was a greedy S.O.B. I can't really work out why anyone would think either of those things, but apparently that's the general view.

But to what I did like about the book. I liked Mantel's stylistic choices. I liked the fact that the narrative is pretty much linear, but the book still manages to play with our perception of time. That the book will have thirty or forty pages that describe a half hour's worth of events, and then will jump forward three years without any explanation of what happened in that intervening time, and we're left to work that out for ourselves. It forces the reader to actually think about what is happening and what it all means. Mantel is giving us exactly what we need, and nothing more. She also does this with her use of pronouns. Sometimes there will be three, four, five, six characters standing around talking to each other, and she will write something like, "then she said," or "then he exclaimed", and the reader is left to work out exactly who it was who said or exclaimed. And you can almost always work it out, but it does sometimes take effort. It is effort that Mantel demands of the reader, and effort that she richly rewards.

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