Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February Book Review: WOLF HALL

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@Barrie Summy

We're getting lovely, unexpected snow today, and I'm in a great mood because I can take credit for it. I need to go to Bangor one afternoon this week, and it would be best for my revision schedule if I went today. But nobody expected the snow and nobody's plowed and now I have to go tomorrow. If you live in coastal Maine and you're a snow lover, you're welcome. If you live in coastal Maine and snow doesn't thrill you, how about a good book?

Don't forget to click the icon to find more of this month's Book Review Club entries. I understand we have a new member, a seventh grader! Welcome, Cassandra!

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt & Co., 2009

Up to now, most books and movies have portrayed Sir Thomas More as a saint (which he actually became, three centuries after his death) and Thomas Cromwell, his successor in Henry VIII’s esteem, as a scheming meany. Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL nearly reverses those portrayals—although “turns them inside out” would be a better way of putting it.

Winner of the United Kingdom’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2009, this is an entrancing, exquisitely written book, but odd. A blacksmith’s son who rises to be Henry’s closest counselor, Cromwell is, in fact, a schemer--and we’re so deep inside his head that we understand and applaud every maneuver. Mantel achieves this with a technical maneuver of her own that sidles back and forth between genius and gimmickry.

It’s all in a pronoun. Cromwell’s tale is written third person, but the narrator seldom uses his name. Cromwell is “he,” almost always, and the reader frequently has to stop and unravel which pronoun refers to which human.

Opening the book at random, one finds the following paragraph on page 214, when a lieutenant of Cardinal Woolsey’s is reporting to Cromwell on the prelate’s downfall: “Cavendish waits. He waits for him to erupt in fury? But he puts his fingers together, joined as if he were praying. He thinks, Anne arranged this, and it must have given her an intense and secret pleasure….” By this point, the reader is astute enough to know that the “he” with his fingers together is Cromwell, not Cavendish. Earlier in the book, the reader had to stop herself from throwing the blasted thing across the room.

The gimmick works. It probably will never work again for another character or another author, and good luck if you want to try it. I don’t have a firm grip on why it succeeds, but here’s my stab at a theory: If this were written first person, we’d be completely in Cromwell’s thrall, relaxed in the knowledge we were seeing everything and everyone through his eyes. Replacing the intimate pronoun “I” with this almost-intimate “he” throws us off balance—whose perspective is this, exactly? We are one with this guy, completely inside his head…so who’s narrating? Who’s “he” this time—better read that paragraph again.

We’re alive, nervous, on our toes…just as Cromwell had to be to survive in a Tudor court that Mantel seems to know as well as her back yard.

The book’s approach to time is uneasy, too. We meet Cromwell in childhood, recovering from yet another beating by his brutish father. We see him run away to the Continent and then, in the next chapter…boom, he’s an adult, with a wife and kids, Cardinal Woolsey’s right hand. He’s grown into a skilled politician, a bit of an idealist—how did that happen, and how come we didn’t get to see it? We feel gypped.

But we learn that time is fluid, as we follow Cromwell’s thoughts back and forth along the arc of his life, seldom with anything as cut-and-dried as a flashback.

As the pages turn, we begin to understand Cromwell’s genius and where it came from. We watch his idealism die with Woolsey, watch him become Henry’s right hand instead, a councilor admired by some, feared by many, respected by all. He moves like a snake, we see that, but he’s kind to his friends and family. He mourns his wife and daughters, loves his dog. He’s a man of wit and taste. Really, he deserves his own pronoun—it’s a shame he has to share that “he” with anyone else.

Oh, and Thomas More? He’s a prig and a miser, mean to his wife. He rather enjoys burning heretics. He engineers his own downfall and execution partly by acting on a strongly held principal, but also by being a jerk. In other words, a perfect saint.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I've been wondering about reading this since it won the Booker. It does sound interesting although I have always found Mantel difficult. I'll give it a try.

Ellen Booraem said...

It took me a while to read it, because the only time I had was when I went to bed and I would get sleepy. But it never made me feel stupid, and I always WANTED to keep reading.

Sarah Laurence said...

Did you get much snow? Ours was just a dusting. I bought this book for my husband and he loved it. Interesting and thorough review.

Ellen Booraem said...

It's still snowing...for once, we were on the right path. (Usually everything goes out to sea before it hits us.) We might get six inches. I'm going out skiing right now!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Intriguing review, Ellen. I love historical novels, and it sounds like this one has complex characterization. I'm not sure how well I'd be able to navigate the POV though from what you said. But might be worth trying.

Stacy Nyikos said...

Oooooh, this sounds devilishly good :-) Sanctifying More in the most negative sense of the word. I love twists like this. Great review!

And so glad to catch up with you in blogger world Ellen. Hope all is going well!

Barrie said...

Well, I think I'm going to have to read this for the pronoun conundrum alone! Imagine writing like that! As usual, an interesting thorough review. Not surprised as it was written by someone who can apparently control the weather! Oh, and how thoughtful of you to put a special link to Cassandra.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I must say, this is not at all my sort of book, but that review was stellar! You have me intrigued...