In my last post, in which I wrote about personal preferences/biases and review-writing, I mentioned that even a positive recommendation won’t turn you into a fan of, say, historical fiction fan if you’re not one already.
It is not a coincidence that I chose historical fiction as my example.
I’ve always had trouble with the genre, and it’s usually because in one way or another, I find the material to be poorly integrated. Frequently, the author alternates dry historical information with a fictional narrative, and both halves suffer as a result: the fictional narrative seems like a cheap draw, and the history is sapped of any inherent interest it may have had. Other times, the author can only make the history come alive by sensationalizing it, which feels like pandering– though I admit to enjoying being pandered to every once in a while.
The court of King Henry VIII seems a subject tailor-made for evading such a trap. Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting schism are nearly as marketable artistically as they were influential historically. Still, with respect to Hilary Mantel’s intelligent writing and mind-bogglingly nuanced imagining of the life of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry’s chief minister, I don’t think this is going to be the book that makes me a historical fiction fan. But for existing fans, Wolf Hall is no doubt a jewel of a book.
Mantel chooses Cromwell as her protagonist, which as I understand, is unusual because other treatments of this material have depicted him as being somewhat villainous. Mantel’s version is a man who earns our respect and admiration, if not our love. He is born the son of a blacksmith; the opening scenes of the book depict him being badly beaten by his drunken father. As a young man, Cromwell works and travels and becomes the man of all trades who will eventually be indispensable to a king who needs to manipulate both the laws and beliefs of a country.
Before working for King Henry, however, Cromwell takes lessons in politics by working for Cardinal Wolsey, whose death he feels as a sincere loss even as it clears the way for his own ascension to power. His other major relationship is, of course, with King Henry, though this develops slowly and only comes into prominence during the second half of the novel. Though Mantel’s Cromwell is deeply attached to his wife and daughters, they die fairly early in the book.
I found myself wishing this had not been the case, or that some woman or child had come along as a replacement of sorts, just to periodically shake us loose from the tight frame of Cromwell’s consciousness. The story is told entirely from his point of view, and even the authorial third-person voice never separates from that view. This can be to good effect when Mantel periodically has another character tell Cromwell about himself (his sister-in-law, after meeting King Henry, tells Cromwell the king is afraid of him, and it is as surprising to the reader as it is to Cromwell). But this kind of insight does not occur frequently, so we are locked into Cromwell’s image of himself. This means we lose a great deal of objectivity in our assessment of his character. Mantel’s Cromwell is a thoughtful man, but not very introspective, so that most of his thought flows outward, away from the reader who is trapped in his head. It is an effective storytelling method in many ways, but may be frustrating for a certain kind of reader.
The reader must also contend with Mantel’s elliptical writing style, which flows unfettered from one conversation to another, and sometimes back and forth in time. I would start a page thinking a certain person was speaking, and end it realizing I had to scroll back up to reread from the correct character’s perspective. Again, it’s very effective as a style of writing meant to approximate how things happen inside a person’s head, but it takes a lot of careful attention to catch everything in this very dense novel. It is also scary for a reader to put that much trust in an author; to believe that even when it seems the author is leaving something out, she will, in the end, have told you everything. That though you don’t understand yet, you haven’t missed anything– you just need to keep going.
But any trust placed in Mantel is vindicated. You find as the novel draws to a close that you do have a solid sense of everything that’s happened, and that you’ve had the rare experience of reading a story you think you know, but this time from an entirely different perspective. I don’t recommend it to the casual reader, but even for those of us who don’t have a natural love of historical fiction, Wolf Hall at minimum elicits deep respect. And if you already love historical fiction and are the type of reader who is willing to put real work into a piece of literature, you will be richly rewarded.