Wolf Hall – a book in progress review

As I fell instantly in love with the Tudor setting while reading C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series ( Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and, as yet unread, Heartstone),  I requested, and received, this tome from my local ever friendly BookElf.

Although I had never read any of Hilary Mantal before, her previous works – most notably Fludd and her short stories Learning to Talk – had been lauded by various friends and relatives. I knew nothing about Wolf Hall, save two facts. The first was that it had been the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, and the second was that the plot focused on the life on Thomas Cromwell.
Well, I say focused, but BookElf was spot on when she noted on twitter that the author seemed to have found the means to travel back in time and stalk the leading players – there is such detailed and – apparently – accurate research on all the players!

The book covers a thirty year time period, from 1500 to 1535, and at 650 odd pages is a somewhat intimidating read. It’s not really a comfortable bus book – purely down to its blocky size, and I have to admit that at the moment, I have stalled, exhausted and a little broken, somewhere around the 400 page mark.

This book is wonderful. It really is – the characterisations are superb, the language and setting all have an authentic air and the swiftly changing  political environment keeps those pages turning.
For the most part.

However, despite the impressive pacing, the intriguing plot, the compelling characters and the beautiful prose, I’m finding it difficult to read due to a lack of clarity, especially during scenes revolving around conversations (which seems to be most situations!). The author seems to be trying out a style of prose that deliberately tries to avoid naming characters during interactions. Perhaps this does indeed serve some higher literary purpose, but it makes a fantastically interesting book a chore to work through.

There again, it’s only fair to point out that even when names are used, it can be just as unclear – everyone of the time period seemed to be called Richard or Thomas or…you know… one of those other clearly Tudor names.

Nonetheless, the book has hit a spot where I seem to re-reading every page twice just to figure out who is saying what and to whom. In my head it reads –
‘He said this to him and he did not approve. He left, while he entered – they nodded as they passed. He, on the other hand, agreed wholeheartedly, though in his secret heart of hearts he wondered what the right honourable him would think of it. And of course he had to make sure that he never heard about it. For then he would not trust him.’
A gross exaggeration?
Perhaps…but I know that I’m not alone in this complaint. On twitter, a few very book-y friends have noted the same complaint, and, in one case, indicated that it had put her off completing the book. Rather flatteringly, another has said that my struggle has inspired her to give it another go, as I am a ‘Reader'(!) and if I was having difficulties, she was certainly allowed to!

Now, I am going to finish this book. In fact, I am determined to, and the sooner the better. I will also probably read the sequel – as I’ve said, I’m really enjoying the book itself, it’s merely the mode of writing that I seem to have an issue with.
On the other hand, I’ll be careful recommending this book to others. I am not a person of below average intelligence, and I do have the facility to retain unusual names, or similar sounding ones in books (heck, I made it through Wild Swans with barely a flicker of hesitation), but I am left confused and a bit depressed in places with this book – I’d hate to make anyone else feel this way.

This is not a book written just for those who have memorised the locations, personality types and personal histories of every significant Tudor of the time, it unfortunately just feels like it is.

Anyway, back to the toil, I’ll let you know how I get on.


2 thoughts on “Wolf Hall – a book in progress review

  1. Pingback: LISTEN TO – The Reith Lectures – Hilary Mantel | LeedsBookClub

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