Saturday, 9 April 2011

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

I owned this book for a year before I managed to find the time to read it and I've spent a month or so thinking about it afterwards.  I still can't make up my mind about it.  The whole, vast book is a magnificent wallow in history - Hilary Mantel gives you such a rich authenticity - the smell of it, the feel of the fabrics, the taste of the food and a glimpse of the almost casual brutality of the age.   It was slow to get into, but once in I kept on reading.  She's a fantastically skilfull writer.   Yet, at the end, I felt  (ever so slightly) dissatisfied.  Did I expect too much?  My only reservation was that I didn't quite believe the character of Thomas Cromwell - the loving husband and father (his affection beautifully evoked) somehow didn't fit credibly with a man who was widely feared by his friends and associates, a devious manipulator, ambitious entrepreneur, Henry VIII''s hitman and Mr Fixit, but apparently with a heart of gold.  It was as though the novelist liked him too much to give him the shades of darkness he needed for the plot to work.  In Tudor times, you didn't get from being a butcher's son on the wrong side of the social divide to being the Earl of Essex without getting your hands dirty.
Some people have found the structure difficult, but I didn't mind the time shifts - I felt I could trust the novelist to lead me through the story in an interesting way.   It was Thomas Cromwell himself who eluded me.  And the whole novel reads curiously like the prelude to something - Wolf Hall is still outside the narrative frame, a visit planned to fill an inconvenient gap in the king's summer progress.   It is all just about to happen.  I will have to wait for the sequel!

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