Thursday, August 23, 2012

Wolf Hall (by Hilary Mantel)

Backdating this post since I finished it two days ago, just in time for my book group meeting on Thursday night! Even though the book is 600 pages long, we had six book group members in attendance and all of us had finished it. And it was a great discussion as well.

This book is the first in a planned trilogy about the reign of Henry VIII from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. It starts as Henry's busy ditching wife #1 and ends when he's with Anne Boleyn, and with the death of Thomas More. You do probably need a certain amount of background knowledge of the time period to enjoy the book, but I wouldn't say a ton. (Knowing the name of Henry VIII's third wife certainly helps.)

I enjoyed the book, but in my opinion it doesn't hold a candle to Antonia Fraser's Wives of Henry VIII, which is an amazing nonfiction book that covers all of Henry's marriages. It's also not as breezy and trashy as The Other Boleyn Girl. (Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize, so I don't think it's going for "trashy" at all.)

The one thing that really bugs me about how it is written is Mantel's use of pronouns. She uses "he" to mean Cromwell even when Cromwell is not grammatically the referent of the pronoun. So it reads very confusingly. Sometimes you have no idea who is actually doing something, since at any given moment, "he" could either be the person who makes grammatical sense, or Cromwell. This is incredibly annoying. The beginning of the book also jumps around a lot in time, for no real reason.

One of our book group friends, Laura, theorized that the "he" thing is to remind us constantly that the book is from Cromwell's subjective point of view. (She also has started the next book in the trilogy, and said Mantel stopped doing that with the pronouns, apparently because everyone in the world complained about it.) We also talked a bit about the title--Wolf Hall is the home of Jane Seymour, who is a minor figure in this book. I think it represents the coming downfall of Anne Boleyn, personally. Someone else mentioned the court being like a hall of wolves, which is certainly also accurate.

We also discussed Cromwell's blind spots in terms of his loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey (at the beginning) and Henry himself, which confused some people. I said that the book begins with Cromwell's beating by his abusive father to explain this very thing--he's searching for a father figure, and thus his blind loyalty to the two men that he serves. (Without the book club discussion, I would not have come up with this theory, but I like it, so here it is.)

So there you go. I think we all enjoyed reading and discussing this one, even if it's neither as historically rich as Fraser's work or as unapologetically trashy as The Other Boleyn Girl. But if you're fascinated by the time period and don't mind 600 pages of pronoun fuckery, this might be the book for you!


Blogger Beth said...

Counterpoint! I found Fraser's book irritating and almost unreadable but I loved this one.

I agree about the pronouns but I figure she was doing something fancy that was over my poor little head.

5:41 PM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I am planning to re-read the Fraser next year, so I'll see if it holds up. I'll probably also read Bringing Up the Bodies, because I'm interested in the next chapter.

Augh, the pronouns. Well, book group had lots of fancy theories. I BUY NONE OF THEM, HOWEVER.

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Maureen said...

Thanks for this review, now I can read the second book-because the pronoun thing drove me nuts in the first. Have you ever read any of Alison Weir's nonfiction on the Tudors? I think she is really good. I will have to check out Fraser's book, I love reading about this time period.

9:40 AM  
Blogger mo pie said...

I've read a couple of Weir's, and they're pretty good, but I love love love Fraser, so definitely check it out.

I'll get to the sequel one of these days!

9:52 AM  

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