Sunday, 3 October 2010

A book a week in 2010: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize

'A superb epic work. Richly satisfying' Kate Mosse (that's the author, not the model)

'Remind me again: how did this win the Booker Prize?' Suzanne Kavanagh

Wolf Hall is an epic (650 page) tour de force (self-indulgent) piece of literary (at times incomprehensible) fiction. It charts the life and times - in minute detail - of Thomas Cromwell, confident and advisor to the Cardinals Wolsey and More, and latterly King Henry VIII.

Mantel charts the everyday life, politics and culture of the Tudor period with depth; weaving intricate description of place and people, humanising Cromwell with a multitude of domestic and family interactions.

There is no doubt that this is an incredibly well researched book. It took years to ensure that the fiction tied in with historical facts. This, for me is one of two things to admire. The other is how you come to understand and respect Cromwell as a man. Mantel provides an alternative view of some of the most powerful of people in English history.

Put simply, I really cared what happened to Cromwell in his personal and professional life. I felt pity for Henry as he struggled to judge those courtiers around him driven by self-service, power and greed, whilst dealing with his own fallibilities.

Now here comes the 'but', and it's a big one.

The changing narratives are, at times, simply impossible to keep track of. They often slip into a stream of consciousness of who-knows-who. A good two-thirds of the book is so confusing I had to re-read passages. Eventually, I gave up. I couldn't make head nor tail of who was saying what and when, so thought it best to get on with reading it and see what stuck.

This is a real shame. It detracted from the strengths of the book. And it made me feel stupid. Then annoyed. All this meant it took a bloody long time to read: months in fact. It became a chore, not a pleasure.

I can't help feeling that it could have been edited and sharpened to retain the literary gymnastics without losing the reader along the way. Like several smart people I've spoken to who also struggled with this book, I don't have a problem with challenging writing.

I'm at a loss as to how an award-winning title can leave me feeling this exhausted, cross and frustrated.

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