Friday, September 10, 2010

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel

Picked up this book to read over the Onam holidays. The 2009 Booker winner, this book is quite a departure from the work they usually award the prize to. For one thing, it is historical fiction. For another, it uses very few literary devices. The one that it does use is present tense, consistently. And it truly helps to define the tone of the book and its subject, Thomas Cromwell.

I don't know if it's a factor crucial to understanding and enjoying the book, but I am fortunate to love and know quite a bit about Tudor history. However Cromwell himself is a shadowy figure. As a teen, I read Jean Plaidy's account of Anne Boleyn's life and although subsequent reading has led me to realise that she was no saint or martyr as portrayed by that book, my views are still sufficiently coloured by it. Anne is shown to be quite scheming, and I think contemporary writing increasingly sees her as such.

Wolf Hall, of course, is sympathetic to Cromwell, who is perhaps among the most reviled people in history. Here, he is shown as more capable and clever than wily and machiavellian. A spin doctor. A wheeler dealer. A man who has lost a great deal, but lands on his feet. A man who instinctively understands how not to misstep.

Much as I enjoyed the characterisation, which made me adjust my views on Cromwell quite a bit, I was always a little mystified as to his motivations. While not quite admiring Anne Boleyn, he assists in obtaining the divorce. Mantel's Cromwell doesn't seem the type to look out for the main chance or feather his nest, so why undertake these tasks which he didn't really believe in?

There is a wealth of secondary characters in the book. The people at Austin Friars, particularly are engaging, especially the young men around Cromwell and their banter. Henry the Eight is less the tyrant of the tower and more the 'glorious Prince Hal'. But then again, he is yet to begin chopping off his wives' heads when the book ends, just before the rise of Jane Seymour. Anne is sharp and admirable, but not quite lovable (which is perhaps accurate).

Wolf Hall is vigorous, its energy quite worthy of its indefatigable subject. Crisp and spare in spite of its not-so-small size - some 600 odd pages - it goes by at a clipping pace.