I have two sites to thank for getting me to finally haul Wolf Hall from the shelf, dust it off, and read it. CB's TBR Double Dog Dare started at the beginning of the month, and since I've owned this since 2009, it was a viable candidate. Second, the fine folks at the Tournament of Books announced the list of finalists for the 2013 bout (and I'm SO excited, I've already read half of them!), and the second part of the Cromwell trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, is on that list. I wouldn't want to read a trilogy out of order, so I'd best scramble through Wolf Hall.
Bonus: at 532 pages, it also easily qualifies as a selection for the Chunkster Challenge.
"Scramble" isn't quite the right word for reading this book. It's not a quick read, but that's not to say that's a bad thing. Confession: I'm not a big fan of historical fiction. A friend of mine refers to much of it as "costume drama," and I think that's the issue with what little I've read. It's as if the author did a ton of research, which they should, but then they feel they need to show off every single little detail they learned, whether it's at all relevant to the book or not.
Hilary Mantel does not do this, to my great appreciation. She simply tells us where and when--"Putney, 1500", for example--and without pounding pages of descriptive details into my brain, I get it. I know it's not Minnesota, 2013. I may envision some of the details incorrectly, but it doesn't matter. I know it's a lot different. That leaves her free to really focus on the plot, and even better, the characters.
I'm not terribly well versed in British history, so I can't comment on the historical accuracy. I can say that Mantel does a wonderful job fleshing out these names that I remember from ponderous tomes read in a sleepy haze for college history classes. She writes in the present tense, which I think helps give a more contemporary feeling. And there's much more humor than I would have expected. I have no idea if Thomas Cromwell had such a fine, dry wit about him, but in Mantel's hands, he's downright sly at times.
Other times he's pensive and thoughtful, while still being somewhat humorous:
"So this morning--waking early, brooding on what Liz said last night--he wonders, why should my wife worry about women who have no sons? Possibly it's something women do: spend time imagining what it's like to be each other.
One can learn from that, he thinks."
"Lent saps the spirits, as of course it is designed to do."
Often the writing is rich and beautiful, and yet still keeping with the overall tone and theme of the book. That said, I think it's a bit longer than it needs to be, and it bogged down in the middle, with some scenes seemingly just repeats of previous scenes (yes, we know Anne Boleyn was incredibly driven in her quest to be queen, I got that in the last three scenes of her being menacing and cold). For most of the text, Mantel refers to Cromwell simply as "he", a technique that was initially confusing until I figured it out, and even then, in scenes with more than one man (which is a great deal of the book), I at times had trouble figuring out who "he" was.
Another problem is that apparently the names Thomas, Henry, Anne, and Mary were commonly used back in the day, and there are swarms of them in this book. That's not Mantel's fault, but there were points I had trouble remembering which Thomas this was, which Anne, which Mary.
Those are minor faults, though. They never made me want to put the book down and walk away. King Henry comes across as a very real, very flawed man who at times I felt sympathy for, and other times was furious at. Anne Boleyn is a piece of work. Thomas More is fascinating.The political intrigues between England and the rest of Europe, including the Vatican, are intriguing and at times almost hilarious.
I'm glad I finally pulled it off the shelf, and I'm more than happy to leap into volume 2.