25 August 2013

Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel
Series: Thomas Cromwell trilogy, book 1
Year published: 2009
Pages: 650
Time It Took To Read: Three days
So, from the ridiculous to the sublime. 
I'm not a big fan of the sort of literature that wins awards, and is doled out to students to analyse. This is probably because my AS level english lit teacher was such a monstrously snobbish idiot about people, books and intelligence. I vividly remember her sneer of disbelief when I told her that I'd read Beloved in one night, as though my general demeanor and appearance meant that I was incapable of reading and understanding a Great Work in a few hours. Bitch, please.
Anyway, this is only the third Booker prize winner I've read, after Midnight's Children (which I should really re-read and see if I understand it better than I did ten years ago) and Amsterdam (tedious). And it was FANTASTIC.
It is a Tudor novel. The establishment, rise and decline of the Tudor dynasty is my favourite, and most fanatically researched part of history. I remember seeing the famous Hans Holbein picture of Henry VIII at Belvoir Castle when I was about 9 years old and being entranced. Since then, I've read most histories of the Tudors, visited their homes, and seen many of the artefacts and portraits of them. I think if I went to Hampton Court Palace, I'd pass out.
This book is largely concerned with Thomas Cromwell, a man exceedingly well placed to initially observe and later steer the events of Henry VIII's first few marriages. Wolf Hall is about the Great Matter of divorcing Katherine of Aragon, the schism from the Roman Catholic church and the marriage to Anne Boleyn. It is a far more political view of events than the corresponding books by Phillippa Gregory, without becoming androcentric. 
I wasn't quite sure if I'd like it or not, and held off reading it for some months in case it was a tedious mire of awful. I was gripped from the first page. It's written in the present tense, with a curious form of third person narrative - Cromwell remains the central character, with events seen only through his eyes, but never in first person. It took some getting used to, but made for a much more interesting read than the usual selfishly driven "I did, I saw, I said" of other historical novels.
The quality of writing is astonishing. Certain paragraphs made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, they were so real and so searing. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge of the Tudor court except for Henry VIII and his myriad wives, you can follow this book, understand the key players and untangle the web. However, if you know more about the court, the actions and the people, then this book is delicious. The characters are fully fleshed, and wholly believable.
I loved it. I bought Bring Up The Bodies this morning, so that's next.

Book count: 40/50

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