Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Okay, obviously I have a little explaining to do on that first category match, since wolves are not actually one of the animals associated with the Chinese Zodiac.(1) In all honesty, this was perhaps my least favorite of all the Around the Year categories, given my suspicions of colonialist baggage. around it all. So initially, I wasn’t sure whether to play along or break away entirely.

As I was mulling over that decision, I was also pondering the extreme degree of difficulty that would be invoked if I tried to find a book connected to the animal from my birth year—the rooster. Then, in a Goodreads discussion board about that exact conundrum, someone shared information about a Tournament of Books that’s affectionately known as “the Rooster.” There’s even a list collecting the titles of the books that have won the Rooster since the contest began.(2)

And there on that winners list was a title I’d already slotted into PopSugar’s category for books I’d meant to read in 2018 but hadn’t. (I originally had it slotted for 2018’s “animal name in title” category, but I decided to read Six of Crows instead.) Since I’m always looking for twofers, I threw Mantel into the rooster category and called it a win.

So, this was my second giant tome of the year, as well as my second Tudor book.(3)

As one might expect, I enjoyed Wolf Hall better than My Lady Jane, which, admittedly, isn’t that high a bar to pass. Reflecting on that comparison, and reviewing the wide variability in responses to Mantel’s novel on Goodreads has me thinking over my own taste in books.

It’s worth knowing right off the bat that Mantel’s novel isn’t necessarily an easy read. The way she tells the story, in an interestingly formal-yet-intimate third person POV  means that there’s a lot of appearances of the pronoun “he.” Often enough, it is legitimately challenging to sort through when “he” is our third-person POV protagonist and when “he” is someone in relationship to our protagonist.

Beyond the issue of fuzzy antecedents, is also the overall density of Mantel’s authorial voice. In addition to “the Rooster,” Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize, and it does have that high literary tone to it. And that’s not everyone’s bag.(4)

I also think it would be difficult for a reader to negotiate the wide tapestry of people, places, events and relationships covered in these 800+ pages without having a decent understanding of the Tudor era and its players. Background knowledge can make a hard novel so much easier to read.

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Having said all of that, my ultimate opinion of Wolf Hall is that even though it’s not an easy read, it was very much a rewarding one. The writing was so evocative, and even though the third-person narrative “he” took some getting used to, it allowed for such poetry and flow between external events, internal thoughts and stratagems, and the fabric of memories, all coexisting for our protagonist as he assesses and responds to the events of the day.

And it is in the choice of protagonist–Thomas Cromwell—that Mantel’s brilliance is most fully on display here.  Most versions of Tudor fiction/film I’ve encountered show Cromwell in highly unflattering modes. As Stephen Greenblatt says in The New York Review of Books,

That Thomas Cromwell was a historically important figure is beyond doubt; that he should serve as the sympathetic hero of a novel is more surprising. There was nothing remotely glamorous or romantic in his person. Even the painter Hans Holbein could not pretend that he was handsome. In Holbein’s great portraits Thomas More fairly glows with a deep thoughtfulness; Erasmus focuses his quicksilver wit and ironic intelligence on the quill pen poised above the sheet of paper; but jowly Cromwell, his mouth set in a hard scowl, clutches a piece of paper like a dagger and looks out at the world through wary, piggish eyes.

In her book, however, Mantel is able to flip the script and show Cromwell in a sympathetic light. Not beatified or anything—that would be highly inappropriate for the closeted Protestant Mantel portrays Cromwell to be—but sympathetic and understandable in all kinds of ways.

I’ve found a lecture by Mantel in which she describes the work she put into researching and understanding her literary subject, and the book is very much a testament to that hard work and to the authorial craft she brought to the page.

As I summarized before, I’m skipping past a couple categories on the Around the Year list to jump to the next book I already know. Which means it’s another tome pour moi. Look for the next book review in mid-April or so?

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(1) That is the one time you’ll see me using that phraseology in my own voice during tonight’s post. I don’t know for sure that the phrase has some sort of ugly colonialist history, but it feels as if odds are pretty good in that direction. So I’ma going the route of discretion being the better part of kindness.

(2) No, I don’t know exactly why it’s called “the Rooster”—though I’m guessing it’s some play on the rooster’s traditional wake-up call and this publication being The Morning News. I also don’t know if there’s any rooster-shaped trophy for winners. I’m guessing not, no matter how much I wish there was one. There is rooster swag, which I may need to purchase.

(3) I am a woman with both eclectic and consistent tastes.

(4) That’s not even always my bag. See: last fall’s decision to swap in the Grishaverse for this novel.

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Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

One thought on “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  1. Pingback: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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