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From Phyllida's Desk

Review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall (Wolf Hall, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rating and reviewing a book like Wolf Hall is a challenge on many levels. It's serious historical fiction written by an intelligent, talented author, about a well-known period of English history (Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, divorce, male heir, rise of Protestantism, break with Rome) as told by a relatively unfamiliar main character, Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chief minister and, as we might think of him, "enforcer." There's an excellent, lengthy, substantive review by "~Geektastic~" just a couple of reviews below mine on Goodreads that lays out all the historical background and discusses the novel in terms of historical accuracy and character development. It's pointless for me to rehash such a masterly job, so in my "review" I will focus on one controversial aspect of Hilary Mantel's work: the narrative style.

As most people know by now, Mantel uses a strange mix of first-person point of view and third-person narrative. Cromwell tells us the story, but refers to himself as "he." All other male characters are necessarily also "he," and there are times, especially during dialog among more than two characters, when it is not clear who "he" is. Occasionally Mantel helps us out by having her narrator say "he, Cromwell."

How a reader reacts to this experiment is probably a matter of temperament and mood. Because I had read so many rave reviews by mainstream critics, all of which mentioned this issue, I was prepared for it but still had moments of confusion. Eventually I decided that if I read a passage three times and still couldn't figure it out, I would just move on.

If I had come to the book with no expectations, I would have been flummoxed at the beginning and might very well not have persevered. Most of the other people in my reading group had a similar reaction. But we all enjoyed the book and some of us would undoubtedly give it a full five stars. (And we have chosen the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, for our next read.)

So why did Mantel do this? My theory is based on the quality of the book that was universally praised: its language that is neither faux-archaic nor anachronistically modern. I'm guessing that, in trying to give readers a sense of the harsh, dangerous and uncomfortable world of 500 years ago, rather than rely on "thee" and "thou" and a whole (Oxford English) dictionary of words that are no longer in use or mean something completely different, Mantel decided to try this universal "he" to make us sit up and pay attention.

At least that's the effect it had on me. I could never just relax into the story to the point of having that amazing out of body experience, the reason I became addicted to fiction as a child. I did become absorbed in the story, but rating it as a drug high, compared to the pure heroin of the best conventionally written novels it was more like tonic water without the gin, or perhaps a hit off a stale joint that's been in someone's back pocket for two years. That's why I'm giving this book four stars, not five. It's a personal thing, as all these Goodreads reviews are. Those stars don't reflect absolute merit but only what we "like"—or don't. Of course I'm not saying that Hilary Mantel isn't a great writer or that her (re)created world of 1530s England isn't brilliantly researched and constructed. It's just not exactly like reading a modern novel.

And I'm sure that's what Mantel wanted to achieve: as one of my group members said, she always felt like an observer of the story, never completely in the world, the way we are with other great novels.

Before I quit, I want to mention the unavoidable issue of taking sides. Even though we know how the history comes out (or should do, after so many books and movies and TV shows) it's hard to read about these famous events and not root for someone: Katherine, Henry's wronged first wife and their one surviving child, Princess Mary, or Anne Boleyn, the arrogant, scheming, French-educated seductress who held out for marriage rather than become just one more mistress and mother of a royal bastard; Sir Thomas More, who went to the tower and the scaffold rather than condone Henry's actions, and who stayed true to the Roman Catholic faith, or Thomas Cromwell himself who, while sympathetic to Katherine and Mary, favored Protestantism on the merits and implemented Henry's wishes as the means of rising to his own position of power and influence, and so on and on.

I can't imagine telling this story and not having strong opinions, especially after immersing oneself in the primary sources, coming to see all these people as … people and developing feelings for them. Mantel does a good job of matching her sympathies with those of her main character, letting us absorb Cromwell's outlook as he learns the facts and understands the various situations. Choosing such a tough, intelligent, self-educated man to be her narrator is a clever way to bring us up to speed. All the major players in this drama are unlikeable, and Mantel makes us acutely aware of the caprice and cruelty behind so many fateful decisions.

But I'm not going to hedge: being safely five hundred years removed from any consequences, I can say that I adore Anne Boleyn (what, you thought "arrogant and scheming" were pejoratives? This is me, Ann Herendeen, speaking) and grateful that her daughter survived to become England's greatest monarch. When I read Mantel's harsh portrayal of Anne, and know what's coming in the next installment of this bloody saga, I cringe. But I wonder how much is Mantel's genuine dislike for this brave, tough adventuress, and how much is her authorial imagining of how Cromwell saw her and her "ginger pig" of an infant daughter.

One result of all this repulsiveness at the top of society is to increase the reader's distance from the story. And in ending this "review" (or whatever it is) I want to mention two places where I felt deeply moved, places in which Mantel broke through the artifice of the universal "he" and allowed genuine human emotions to flow.

In the first we see Anne after Elizabeth's birth, bearing up bravely as Henry and the court absorb the unpalatable fact of the child's sex. As Anne shows her baby off to the court, the baby cries. And for the only time in the entire book, Anne reveals an unguarded, authentic feeling of love. "Anne's glance slides away sideways, and a sideways grin of infatuation takes over her whole face, and she leans down toward her daughter, but at once women swoop … the screaming creature is … swept away, and the queen's eyes follow pitifully as the fruit of her womb exits" (p. 458).

The second instance occurs as a gentle young scholar named John Frith is burned alive, for heresy, under Thomas More's direction. On the day, Cromwell is out hunting with the king. "Henry, laughing, spurs away his hunter under the dripping trees. At Smithfield, Frith is bring shoveled up, his youth, his grace, his learning and his beauty: a compaction of mud, grease, charred bone" (p. 445).

These unexpected moments made me understand that if the whole book had been like this it would have been unendurable. The sixteenth century, like so much of the past, seems horrific to us, with dirt, disease and torture part of daily life. We couldn't withstand total immersion in that world, and Hilary Mantel, in her compassion, instead gave us only so much reality as she thought we could tolerate.

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