Book Review: WOLF HALL

Hilary Mantel’s ninth novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. WOLF HALL is most of the Anne Boleyn story told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister in 1530s England.

I didn’t say that it was the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, because Mantel doesn’t really tell us much about his transformation from street urchin to statesman. Apart from the famous opening scene where we meet him at the age of fifteen being given a brutal beating by his father, we hear very little about the protagonist until the year 1529, when his mentor Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, is being stripped from power.

That’s twenty-nine years that encompass his flight from England, his roaming around the continent of Europe, his marriage to Liz Wykys, the birth of his children, not to mention how he met Wolsey and was mentored by him.

Admittedly, the historical record is probably sparse. But if an author is interested in building up character, especially the motivations of the protagonist, it might have been worth while to sketch in these years, if only to show more clearly who Thomas Cromwell was.

There are some good things about this novel. Mantel has a ear for casual speech, and an eye for memorable detail. Her portrait of 16th-century England is grittily real, and I am sure these qualities impressed the Man Booker committee.

But there are some odd things about this novel, odd because Mantel is a experienced writer who had written eight novels before she started this one.

  1. Why did she write in limited third rather than first person? Why the confusing “he” that so many reviewers mention, the “he” that means that Thomas Cromwell is speaking, that could have been rendered much more clearly if it had been changed to “I”. I have never read a novel, where I have had to re-read so many of the sentences because I was so confused about who was talking. This was an easy-to-fix issue, and I am surprised that Mantel left the reader hanging in this fashion.
  2. Where is the narrative arc? This story is rife with tension, yet there is very little drama in this novel. The tone is quiet, matter-of-fact. Perhaps that is what Mantel intended, but the novel would have been much more readable if the drama had actually been dramatized.

Despite all the positive reviews, my experience was not positive. Although there were patches in the novel that were tremendously interesting (descriptions of Queen Katherine, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn stick in my mind) the whole work seemed impressionistic and grey, rather than vibrant and full of tension.

For these reasons, I would not recommend this novel.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2010. All rights reserved.

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