Wolf Hall won the Booker prize in 2009, and its sequel, Bringing up the Bodies, is the Bookies’ favourite for the 2012 prize. If it weren’t for this accolade I very much doubt if I would have read it, not being an historical fiction fan, and I certainly would not have persisted to the end of the 650 pages.
This is very much the “anti-Booker” – instead of the usual slim volume of sensitively crafted, flawed memories, this is a detailed recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell. As always the best and first question to ask is “Why?” – which Mantel helpfully answers in a short Q&A published at the end of this Fourth Estate paperback edition. Mantel found Cromwell a mysterious figure, and decided to give him a voice. This she does very well – his portrait is well rounded and convincing. He comes over as a sympathetic figure, caught up in turbulent times, trying his best to follow his conscience whilst at the same time to survive and prosper.
Mantel draws heavily from the historical record, which is of course legitimate – Shakespeare did very much the same – and we get a detailed insight into the key characters from this crucial period in English history. There is, as you will have guessed, a faily big “but” coming. In fact, several. Where to begin?
First, everything takes such a long time to happen, and while we wait for Henry to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn the material used to fill the gaps is not interesting enough to carry the reader along – I confess I took a two week break half way through reading this, and only returned out of a sense of duty or stubborness.
Second, the author’s much criticised use of the male singular personal pronoun is deeply irritating. Usually, but not always, “he” is used to refer to Cromwell. The idea no doubt is to pull the reader closer into identifying with him, but it generates huge confusion virtually on every page, which is compounded by large blocks of dialogue and the use of the present tense. You can usually work out in the end who is being referred to, and devices to make the reader pause and think are often no bad thing, but here the main impact is one of irritation.
This confusion is made worse by the huge cast of characters, many with the same name, who are often lightly sketched. I gave up bothering to try to work out who was who, who was related by birth or marriage to who, and so on – the investment of effort and time wasn’t proportionate to the reward.
Finally, the title is simply a teaser for the second book in the series, (I am assuming it is a series – there are a lot of wives to go), Wolf Hall being the home of the Seymours. It is an evocative metaphor for the dog eat dog world Henry created amongst his court, but it is a bit of a cheat.
In the end, do we care enough about the central character to justify the 650 pages? I didn’t I’m afraid, and unless you are a big historical fiction fan (think Philippa Gregory or Alison Weir) I would not recommend this.