Monday, January 3, 2011

Wolf Hall

Extraordinary
My teaser post last week did not accurately encompass my feelings towards Wolf Hall. This isn't a book that just draws a reader in through its story, it's a book that dragged me into its depths because of its intense wit. Every page of Wolf Hall has some clever line, either spoken by the book's many sharp characters (Cromwell, you bastard) or even its less witty characters. Lines that fall into the context of history made me laugh out loud numerous times throughout the book.

One advantage Wolf Hall has over many other historical fiction texts (other than the excellent writing of Hilary Mantel, which is certainly going to lead me to read more of her books, though I need to remember to keep my expectations reasonably low...) is that Mantel takes a character previously shown in negative light (think A Man for All Seasons) and makes the reader absolutely, completely and totally fall into step (or love - whatever) with him. By the end of the book, I wanted nothing more than for Cromwell to manage my own affairs and then clap him on the back and say, "Well, if you're pretty much best friend/truster advisor to the king... I'm sure you can be best friends with me!"

It's not just Cromwell, though. It's the human way Mantel portrays everyone - the positive and negative sides of Henry VIII, Wolsey, Catherine, Anne and many other historical figures I've only ever encountered very vaguely. This isn't a historical text, to be certain, but it's not the typical historical fiction novel either (romance filled and, with no offence to good historical fiction, lame). It's refreshing.

The main criticism I'd encountered of Wolf Hall before reading it (and the one that made me hesitant to approach it) was the label "dense". While reading Wolf Hall, I understood where readers might get that impression, even if I did not. The book is long, certainly, and packed, but "dense" in my mind means heavily packed to the point that it does not flow well. Wolf Hall flowed. It positively bounced. Whether in the intensely entertaining scenes of historical relevance, or the simply brilliant dialogue, I wanted nothing more than to continue reading the book. And also finish it.

It's true that it's been a long, long time since I've read a good historical fiction book. Or a good classic. Wolf Hall appealed to me on both those fronts, in the weirdest of ways. It's a book that feels modernly old-fashioned, historically contemporary, and all-over well-crafted. It's a book that's truly "extraordinary" - not quite like anything I've ever read and most highly recommended.

8 comments:

  1. Agreed! Particularly your comment that the book "positively bounced". I did not find it dense at all - I thought the overall pacing was brilliant.

    After reading Wolf Hall I rushed out to buy other Mantel books. So you don't make the same mistake I did...Vacant Possession is actually a sequel to the novel Every Day Is Mother's Day... and much more contemporary. Fludd is also very good. Wolf Hall seems to be the cuckoo in the nest - very unlike the rest of her novels (at least the one's I've encountered). Which isn't to say the older books aren't as good. Because they are wonderful - just in a different way.

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  2. Okay, you've convinced me I MUST read it.

    A most excellent review. You've done what many other dozens of writers could not.... Pam

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  3. Great review. I have this one loaded on my iPod now. You make me want to get to it ASAP.

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  4. Bought this 2 weekends ago... All positive rave from your side. I'll read it with great anticipation.

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  5. You've written an excellent review of an excellent book. I was extremely impressed with how Mantel managed the voice. She makes the third-person seem almost like Cromwell's first person voice, but not quite. In addition to the great characters, wit, and pleasing story, there are some technical niceties to admire as well.

    I have not run out and bought Mantel's other work, partly because I am afraid her other work would be a let down and partly because I want the predicted sequel to Wolf Hall to be my next Mantel.

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  6. Totally agree and what a good review! 'refreshing' is the perfect word to describe Mantel's historical novel!!

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  7. Spot on: it is the wit and often dark humour as well as the statecraft/politicking and frequent sense of danger that keeps the reader involved in this marvellous book. I do recommend 'A Place of Greater Safety' (about the French Revolution, focusing largely on Camille Desmoulins & Georges Danton).

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