Thursday, 15 April 2010

Hilary Mantel's wolf of a novel

I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantels’ Wolf Hall – a weighty tome, if ever there was one. My attention was first drawn to the book when it won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The novel is a fictional account of life in Henry VIII’s court as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s most trusted advisers. It is set during one of the most turbulent periods of English history when Henry divorces his wife, Katherine of Aragon, in favour of Anne Boleyn.

Unusually for a Booker winner, the critics were almost entirely unanimous in their praise of this novel. The literary sections of the weekend newspapers were heaving with positive reviews, and as a result, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in! An interview with the author on The Book Show (Sky Arts, 7pm every Thursday for those of you who haven’t yet discovered this little gem) only heightened my eagerness.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to fade to disappointment and disillusionment. I found the book extremely tough-going. The narrative seemed ‘clunky’ and awkward. The dialogue was extremely confusing, mainly as a result of Ms Mantels overuse or incorrect use of the ‘he’ pronoun. She often referred to Cromwell as ‘he’ even when it was not grammatically correct to do so, with the result that there could be several ‘he’s’ in a section of dialogue all referring to different characters. I often would have to re-read entire sections, after realizing that I had been attributing dialogue to the wrong character. It was mightily frustrating. In my view, one of the golden rules of writing - Thou Shalt Ensure Thy Writing Is Clear – was ignored by the author.

But hadn’t the reviews been positive? Was I missing something? I felt more than a little inadequate, given that so many deities of the literary world were expounding the virtues of this novel. However, a quick look at some reviews on Amazon revealed that I was not the only one who thought the narrative was problematic. In fact, there were quite a number of negative reviews from “lesser mortals” like myself, ordinary people who bought the book and had been disappointed.

Although heartened by the discovery that I was not the only person in the universe who found this book difficult, I was determined to persevere with it. I am loathe to leave any book half-read, and I am not one to be easily defeated. To enhance my enjoyment of the novel, I decided a change of approach was required. I came to the conclusion that this is not a book to be dipped into whenever one gets a spare moment to read. Instead, I devoted considerable chunks of time to reading it in a few marathon sessions. This meant that I wasn’t constantly losing the thread of the narrative, and as a result, the ‘flow’ of the book improved immeasurably. Of course, I also had to studiously ignore the annoying ‘he’ pronoun problem.

Persistence paid off, because despite my initial frustrations, I did end up enjoying this book. Notwithstanding the flaws, it is still a remarkable piece of work. Mantel ingeniously uses Cromwell to give her reader a completely new perspective on the very familiar subject of Henry VIII. She succeeds in bringing the past to life; her descriptions are so vivid that characters sometimes seem to jump off the page. When I eventually finished reading, I felt a sense of loss which stayed with me for days. And this, surely, is the mark of a great book. So my advice would be to not to give up on this novel, stick with it and you will be rewarded.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent and challenging plot, requires close reading. Variable POV and historical significance provide a wonderful read.