Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A note before I start because I feel bad about giving a book 2/5 stars: In the Goodreads rating system, two stars is “It was OK.” And that’s how I feel about this book. I didn’t dislike it, but there weren’t enough things I liked to bump it up to “liked it” (three stars).
I’ll start with what I liked about the book. I liked the way Mantel gets into Cromwell’s head and constructs motivations for him and the other historical characters in the novel. Mantel fills in the missing details in Cromwell’s life and gives him a nuanced character that I liked quite a bit.
I also appreciated the way she traces the shifting alliances of those in power. There is no straight, honest path to success in Tudor England, it seems, and Mantel shows how each person molds himself (or herself) into what he thinks will garner favor with those in power. But there are no guarantees. Property, wealth, and position are bestowed on a whim and confiscated as easily. The 16th century seems like a really sucky time to be alive in England. (When was a good time to be alive in England? Reading David Hume’s history of the 17th century, that doesn’t seem much better, and I know the times before were as bad or worse. But I’ll stop that train of thought here or I’ll find myself in an existential morass, and I don’t have enough chocolate to dig myself out before bedtime.)
Which leads me to my dislikes.
I think the biggest thing I disliked was just how bleak the story is. I thought for a while that it seemed bleak because I know how the story ends and so there was no hope for a better outcome. The mistakes were made hundreds of years ago, and there’s no changing them without changing history. It’s all too real to be particularly pleasurable to read. I’m not sure that’s the only cause for the feeling of bleakness in the story, though. Maybe I just feel uncomfortable with people exercising their power with so little regard for the people around them. What’s a life lost here or there? And public torture is a necessary evil, a tool to deter people from holding opinions unpopular with the king’s current state of mind. It’s possible I just don’t like reading about monarchy.
Apart from the bleakness, I found the style of the book distracting and even a little tedious. There were a lot of male pronouns kind of hanging out there without a clear reference to one of the many men in a scene. I often found myself reading over a section multiple times trying to figure out just who said what and who did what. An example: “The evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More.” The “he” in that sentence does not refer to Fisher, but that wasn’t apparent until seven lines down when More addresses his visitor by name. Needing to stop so often to decipher the pronouns kind of puts the brakes on the momentum of the story. I did fairly well when I just assumed that Cromwell was the “he,” but that wasn’t always true, either.
And then there’s the present tense. I admit, I have a bias against the present tense, especially a long piece of writing. Aside from being useful to express action in a script or screenplay, the present tense can lend immediacy to an anecdote and help to express the sense that something isn’t just a one-off but that it happens all the time. It’s used frequently in blog posts. But this book isn’t a blog post and is isn’t about something that happens all the time. And it takes more than the present tense to lend immediacy to events that took place darned near 500 years ago. To me it felt like an attempt to make it feel like the reader was watching a movie, and I guess that’s not something I like in my literature (or at least not 532 pages of it).
I’m not sure why I made myself finish this book except that I didn’t decide for sure that I didn’t care if I finished it until I was about halfway through. I’d put in so much time by then, I wasn’t willing to let it get the better of me. I will say this for the book: Although I wasn’t totally keen on Wolf Hall, I liked it better than I did The Tudors (and it didn’t take me as long to read the former as it took me to watch the latter).
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