Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wolf Hall- Hilary Mantel

Maybe I have read Indian writing in English a tad too long. Yes, I heard my sister say that it is a tough book to read, but I thought, how tough could it be. And then I spent one month ploughing through of this vast tome of historical fiction. And the one reason I didn't keep it away is that, I couldn't- the story is itself riveting. The language of the book has often been critiqued as too dense and confusing. But I feel, given the period that has been portrayed, the archaic language brings out the historical validity of the novel. While the story starts with Cromwell's childhood, probably less material makes Mantel move quickly to adulthood. However, I wish there was more on that time of Cromwell's life. Its a pity.
First, the title. Wolf Hall is where Jane Seymour was born, the third queen, after Anne Boleyn... and the house itself does not feature in the novel, nor does Jane in any significant role- yet. I am guessing she will have a bigger role to play in 'Bring Up the Bodies', the second part of the proposed trilogy. However, we all know the history, and Anne's ambition to be queen, as held against the impending disaster she will face makes the title itself like a death knell for her. 

But this is neither the story of Wolf Hall or Jane or Anne Boleyn or even Henry VIII. This is the story of the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner, blacksmiths son, into the highest echelons of the English court, a favourite of Henry and a trusted aide of Anne herself, who he later brought down cruelly. Cromwell have been written in countless novels and studies in countless shades, cruel, sharp, ambitious, cut throat... and here, we see yet another side to him, not normally seen. The family man. The husband and father and uncle and good Samaritan. Who not only rises fast in court and becomes a king's favourite for his charm and diplomacy, his skill as lawyer and law maker, his acumen with numbers, but also one who thought rationally in an irrational fanatic world. On the one hand he reveres Thomas More, for his capabilities and power of mind, on the other, his hatred for More's methods (where he tried and executed countless intellectuals for heresy) are evident in the novel, towards the end, when it is Cromwell who tries More and brings about his execution.
I have always loved historical fiction, and this satisfies every requirement on my list. The characters are varied and numerous, and only a very skilled storyteller like Mantel, will be able to bring every character to light and draw them into the plot. I never liked Cromwell much, especially since his loyalties were always suspect... he helped Henry divorce Katherine and gained Anne's trust, and then brought the downfall of Anne without much of a qualm. This book brings out where Cromwell's loyalties may have laid- in his King and his Country. 
Lastly, the oft repeated point of a woman writing from a man's point of view... this is truly an example of such a book where the gender of the writer is not evident in the writing. It is strong writing, it is a male point of view, Cromwell's point of view. And you will never once think of the sex of the writer WHILE you are reading... the prose is just too perfect, too tightly bound and you,as a writer will think, I will never be able to write like this, construct like this. Read this one for the history, for the story, for the language, for the characters, and my favourite in any court drama- the sexual politics. I already have Bring Up the Bodies in my hand, and cant wait to launch right into it

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