I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and a host of other plaudits, so I thought it would be a worthwhile read. The book deals with the life of Thomas Cromwell, the no-nonsense chief minister in Henry VII’s court, and his relationships with the tudor nobility, the church and also his own family.
I enjoyed the novel, especially the natural tone of the dialogue and lack of literary tricks to highten the drama. The uncontrived nature of the story is probably helped by it being partly based on factual events. Too many novels are reverse engineered labyrinths where the author decides the endpoint and works backwards devising meandering paths for the protagonist, nudged on by contrived coincidences. It’s designed to keep the reader off-balance but feels unorganic after a while. Science fiction and fantasy writers are the worst for this: ‘our hero is in a tight spot! is this the end of his adventure? but wait, the sword of amulcar is glowing with energy!’. Every scenario has to have a recherché escape route, every enemy an achilles heel. The missile into the death star moment.
There are problems with Wolf Hall however. Many readers have pointed these problems out, and have sometimes been criticised for doing so. The main problem for the reader is getting lost, but not in the plot. Rather, it’s something more fundamental: the situation, the characters present, and who is speaking. Mantel seems to have made a conscious decision to largely strip away introductions of scene, character and dialogue. This means geographical location and cast are changed surreptitiously and you can be halfway down a page before you realise. Tracking dialogue is like reading a transcript of a real conversion being read out by a single person. This style helps with the flow of the prose as jarring cascades of ‘Mr Soandso said…’, , ‘Miss Thingy whimpered…’ etc can stultify the dialogue. It reminded me of the brutal style of ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. A style easy to admire but hard to love. The conversations are largely between only two characters in that novel, with one being a child, so it was impossible to lose track as to who is speaking.
A less serious problem is the portrayal of Cromwell himself. For many years he has been portrayed as a bit of a villain and a bully (e.g. A Man for all Seasons by Robert Bolt). Mantel seeks to redress this but describes him in terms of a quintessential modern humanist. He’s a bit too secular and irreligious for that period of time, in my opinion.
I’m looking foward to the next book in the series ‘Bringing up the Bodies’. There’s definite quality in Mantel’s writing and even the infuriating aspects add to its individuality.