Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.
I read Wolf Hall because it won the Booker prize. I bought it not really knowing what it was about, which is probably a good thing because historical fiction is not my favourite.
From the very first page Mantel kicks tedium in the balls, and pulls us by our hair through the imagined life-story of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel notes that the novel takes place during “a period of tremendous political change and a clash of ideologies”. The power of the church is pitted against the power of parliament; babies are drowned; men are hung, castrated and gutted, cut down only to be left to die while slipping around in their own entrails. We hear the details of a time we no longer know, second hand, as Cromwelll reminisces, and we see the build up to the sequel mirrored in Henry’s roving eyes, as he desperately, if not despotically, searches for an heir.
Once I got to grips with the overuse of pronouns (“he” is always Cromwell) everything about this novel captured my imagination. I found myself sitting in front of my laptop late at night trawling through Wikipedia articles about the English monarchy, and Googling (from bed, with the lights off and the rest of the house asleep) portraits of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymore.
The New York Times has described Mantel’s turn of phrase as “acerbic” and “diabolical”. Her book is firmly fixed in the 16th century, although it contains no archaic language and is, in some instances, refreshingly modern. In doing this she translated sentiment better than might have been done with old English. Mantel’s novel is also incredibly amusing, and her Cromwell is complex, brilliant, and very likable – a change from all other ways he is represented. Her art is in being able to create suspense, even when we already know the outcome.
I enjoyed it immensely, and am excited to start the second book in the series, which is on the pile beside my bed. I am taking a little break before that, though, with a little Kerouac.