Using that criterion, Wolf Hall is the most ambitious of this year’s three. Mantel has retreated almost 500 years to offer a treatment of the Tudor era. In a 650-page doorstopper, she introduces and develops the notion that Thomas Cromwell is a person that history has overlooked, that he deserves to be regarded as every bit as much an influence as Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More at one of the key tipping points in English history. And, to bring things back to the present, her book is attracting attention. My online bookmaker now has it at only 2-1 to win the Prize from the 13 longlisted books — it opened at 5-1 and the odds quickly moved down. (Bookies make no comment on the quality of the book — they do accurately reflect how much money is being wagered on each book.)
A quick contextual summary. Henry VIII is King, Katherine of Aragon is his wife and has produced no male offspring. He has become enthralled with Anne Boleyn, who (wisely) won’t jump into his bed until he agrees to marry her and make her Queen (her sister, Mary, meanwhile is a regular bedmate). The result is a split with Rome and the creation of the Church of England, altering western world history for all time. I am absolutely certain you already know this.
None of this could happen without a lot of manoeuvering in the background and Wolsey and More have throughout history certainly attracted a lot of attention, books and films. Mantel’s book posits the idea that Thomas Cromwell was Henry’s key advisor through this period — I make no judgment on the legitimacy of that claim, but reviewers with a far deeper knowledge than I of that period in history, give it credence.
While Mantel breaks her book into six parts, I’d separate it into three:
– Cromwell’s “learning” period as Wolsey’s henchman, ending with the Cardinal’s death. The son of a blacksmith who beat him, Cromwell headed to Europe as a soldier, learned how to make money and exercise power and returned to find a position in Wolsey’s entourage that allowed him to hone his inherent skills.
– A “development” period, as Anne (in the novel) forces Henry to meet her conditions. Cromwell, betrayed by those who removed Wolsey, lines up with the interest of the Boleyns, learns the ropes, executes well and Henry’s second marriage eventually takes place.
– The “exercise” of power. Once Katherine has been put aside, Henry’s problems are far from over. Mantel portrays the King as a bit of a caricature but Cromwell is anything but. This part occupies almost the entire final half of the book and is by far the strongest section. Mantel portrays Cromwell as both ruthless and humane; there is more than one gruesome execution but, as well, her hero is committed to developing and placing the surrogate sons and daughters that are part of his household.
Anne and Henry are still together when this book ends (with the execution of More) so it is a snapshot of a period of the Tudor era, rather than a comprehensive look at Henry’s reign. Above all, it is a portrait of Cromwell, the influencer and executor.
Here are the problems that I had with this novel (severe enough that I had to put it aside halfway through):
– It does not travel well. I don’t know a lot about Tudor history, but I know the elements of the story. Perhaps if I lived in Britain, I would have been interested in all the detail that the author presents. I don’t live there and I found much of that aspect of the book very heavy slogging and, quite frankly, did not learn much that I did not already know. Mantel’s treatment of the secondary characters is particularly weak on this front.
– My reading style does not suit this kind of book at all. I usually read in sessions of more than two hours, so I would expect to finish this book in three or four sessions. The lack of plot (beyond what I already knew) and the painfully slow character development produced significant irritation. If your reading style is to read 20 or 30 pages a night and then contemplate, you’ll probably do far better than I did with this novel — and you have a whole month of reading to which to look forward.
– I did Mantel no favor with the other reading I did while I read this book. After setting it aside roughly at the halfway points, I read William Trevor’s Love and Summer and Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. Trevor and Munro are mainly short story writers and they share an ability to capture in two paragraphs what most authors take 10 pages to say. Mantel, on the other hand, takes 10 pages to develop (often through confusing dialogue) what most authors take care of in two paragraphs.
I make those observations to indicate that my frustration with Wolf Hall is more about myself, my habits and my tastes than criticism of the author or her book. It certainly is not the first time that I have found a Booker “big” book wanting.
I fully expect Wolf Hall to be on the Booker shortlist when it is announced Sept. 8 — and I will be only mildly surprised if it eventually wins the Prize. Having said that, not all good novels (or even Booker winners) are for everyone’s taste, and this one certainly was not for mine. I do feel a little bit guilty about being negative about Wolf Hall — for a much more enthusiastic review, check out dovegreyreader’s thoughts here . There is no doubt that Wolf Hall is an impressive piece of work, I just think many readers will join me in finding it wanting in evaluating the time that has to be invested in reading it.