26 October 2009

Wolf Hall

My copy of the Man Booker 2009 winning novel arrived one week after the award announcement (luckily, I finished The Children's Book just in time). Nice. Interesting red dust jacket. I know it's about Thomas Cromwell...but why is it titled Wolf Hall?

I'm not going to tell you why the book is titled Wolf Hall (it's an oblique reference, you have to know the history of Henry VIII's reign, and then you have to draw your own reasoning). Sorry, but telling gives a bit away, not that the major action of the novel is a mystery because nearly every character in the book is/was a real person. Wolf Hall is most interesting in that Hilary Mantel has taken a man rendered very cold and scheming by history (Thomas Cromwell is usually portrayed as a bean-counting, social-climbing lawyer) and redrawn him as a family man, albeit one with a very shrewd business sense. Scary shrewd business sense. Cromwell is a man who suffers the loss of his wife and daughters yet perseveres in supporting his son and an extended network of wards, nephews, neices, sisters, sisters-in-law, etc. during Henry's turbulent reign.

I did come to like the character Cromwell over the course of the novel. Mantel chose to write the novel using a limited third person narration so all events of the novel are told entirely through Cromwell's point-of-view (his is the only inner monologue to which the reader is privy); it's a bit like being the proverbial fly-on-the-wall in every scene because no scene in the novel occurs whithout Cromwell's presence. Mantel also used "he" to reference Cromwell most of the time, instead of I, and this leads to my one and only complaint: approximately 80% of the characters of the book are male, 100% in a number of scenes, so using "he" to almost exclusively refer to a character when multiple characters speaking/acting are male becomes confusing. Does the "he" really refer to Cromwell (because it did most of the time) but in some instances does Mantel mean Henry? Or Percy? Or Norfolk, Suffolk, Rafe, Call-Me-Risley, Christophe? Backtracking multiple times in a novel does kind of get to me after a while. In a novel that is otherwise very enjoyable and well crafted the lack of clarity seems a failure on both the part of the editor and author.

If I compare Wolf Hall to The Children's Book I have to say I'm a little disappointed. Byatt's writing is lush, her novel well-crafted with fantastic multiple voices that give color to her time period. Mantel's writing is much sparer - which I expected from a novel about Cromwell - but I didn't find it as evocative of the Tudor reign and the narrative convention did rub me up the wrong way. Do I think The Children's Book should have won the Booker? Yes. Am I biased because I think Byatt is fantastic? Of course. Does Wolf Hall deserve the Booker? On that question, my jury is still out; I enjoyed reading Wolf Hall (it is a good story) and it was a fun book to finish off during the readathon but since I didn't read all the Booker-shortlisted titles I really can't say if the race was solely between Byatt and Mantel. I've got some more reading ahead of me.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 3/5

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