Thursday, February 9, 2023

Books I've Read: WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel


So, I made a plan to write about the books I've read -- part synopsis, part analysis . . . though mostly synopsis -- as a way not only to add to this tired blog, but also for me to remember what I have read. And then, I dropped the ball. 

though, to be fair, I only dropped it for a moment, relatively and metaphorically speaking. but who cares, let's get to it!

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel. 

Part one of an historical trilogy, the first two books adapted by BBC Masterpiece, this one winner of the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award . . . this book is masterful! Was I ever blown away reading this! It was pure joy. And just because it earned critical accolades was no guarantee I would enjoy it. Art is subjective, and though I loved the adaptation of LONESOME DOVE and that source material won a Pulitzer, I found reading the original novel a slog. But I digress. 

Wolf Hall follows the meteoric rise of a mere blacksmith's son, Thomas Cromwell, as he becomes the closest advisor to King Henry VIII, in early 1500s England. As noted by many, Mantel offers a fictionalized, sympathetic picture of Cromwell. And I don't care in the least. His characterization is all the more engaging for this. Put forth as a quiet, unassuming man, self-taught in various disciplines and multiple languages, who has traveled abroad and returned to England a lawyer, Cromwell utilizes his ability to fade into shadows to watch everyone and everything, as he plans how to rise through society, while keeping the facade of a simple man living only to serve. 

Gaining entry to the inner political workings of England through his loyal service to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, which also puts him at odds with Thomas More ("Half the world is named Thomas" is one of the lines from Cromwell that brought a smile to my face and has stayed with me since completing the novel), this innocuous man continually confounds those who have lived ever with titles and power and money. Cromwell, in this telling, was born to a blacksmith who was a drunkard and beat young Tom senseless many a time, until Tom left to seek something, anything better. This early abuse steeled the boy who would become the man behind many of the machinations that would endear him to his King, Henry VIII. And even when his patron, Wolsey, finds himself on the wrong side of the king's wrath and eventually dies, Cromwell somehow comes out of this without it hurting him, socially. 

Returning to a thread I lost two paragraphs up (these posts are off-the-cuff, so forgive me if it feels disjointed; there are only 3 of you reading this, anyway, so you can message me if clarification is necessary), it's the quiet strength of Cromwell that I find so intriguing. He rarely raises his voice, hardly ever shows emotion, gliding through the narrative like a shadow, and yet, everything revolves around him. It's a fascinating approach by Mantel. This also makes for a good counterpoint to many of the other characters in Cromwell's orbit -- the boisterous privilege of Henry, the arrogance of Thomas More, the knife-edged ambition of Anne Boleyn, all of them are more animated, more intense, more raucous than Cromwell, and yet, like the running water of the brook erodes the rock, Cromwell's quiet persistence is what allows him to succeed and move into a position of real power. It also offers a wonderful dynamic within the story. 

Mantel's writing -- her actual words on paper -- is masterful. She chooses to never write 'Cromwell said,' choosing to only refer to Cromwell as 'he' whenever defining his speech. It was confusing in the first few pages, but once I got into the rhythm of reading, it all became clear. Mantel also is writing with a slightly elevated language, in order to evince 16th-century England, without wholly abandoning contemporary English. These, combined, make for some slight challenge in reading Wolf Hall (a factor I discovered during a quick online search, where I found some people complaining that the book was too difficult to read and they had set it aside after a few pages), but it also makes for a more enjoyable and satisfying read, as well. Mantel is fully in control of the writing in Wolf Hall, and her confidence is such that she cares not whether you follow or not, she understands those who will get the most from her narrative will complete the journey. It reminds me of the confidence that seeped off the page when I read Toni Morrison's 'Beloved.' It's an admirable trait and elevates the entire experience of reading, for me. There's a reason Wolf Hall won a Booker Prize -- many reasons, actually -- and it is well deserved. I can't wait to dig into the next book!


No comments: