Princess Muse

Monday, August 15, 2011

Musings about Wolf Hall

My book club just read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.  Actually, that's not quite true.  Wolf Hall is the book we were suppose to read for discussion, but I was the only one who completed the book.  Now, to be fair, several members of my book club are undergoing lifestyle changes:  children going off to college, a change in job, things like that.  Several work full time, or have to take college courses for certification purposes.  I'm probably the only who is truly enjoying a lazy summer, sitting on my porch, writing blog entries, watching hummingbirds, listening to my iPod and reading.

There are about 10 of us in my book club.  All of us hold at least a bachelor's degree, and several of us hold an advanced degree.  I'm telling you this so that you understand that we're not dumb.

Despite my first paragraph, I don't really think that lack of time is what kept most of the women in my book club from finishing Wolf Hall.  Rather, it was a lack of interest.  Which is a shame, because the story was fascinating.

For those of you who don't know, Wolf Hall is part of the life of Thomas Cromwell (Oliver Cromwell was the great-great grandson of Thomas' sister, Kat).  The story starts just before Thomas leaves home, the son of a blacksmith in Putney, journeys to mainland Europe to become a soldier and wool merchant, and eventually lawyer, banker and Secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII.  The book chronicles Henry's desire to set his wife, Katherine of Aragon, aside so that he can marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn; the start of the English Reformation and Thomas Cromwell's Rise to Influence in Henry VIII's court.  The book ends not long after the death of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England after Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn's miscarriage of a child after the birth of Elizabeth.  Most of the book encapsulates six or seven years.

Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009.  So, it should be, you know, a really interesting book.  Honestly, although I had a high interest in the subject, I didn't find Ms. Mantel's book that interesting.  From the time I started the book to the time I finished the book was about two weeks, but I read probably 8 or 9 other books while reading Wolf Hall.  Actual reading time was probably closer to 5 days, reading about 100 pages/day.

I think there are three weaknesses to Wolf Hall.  The first is purely a style issue.  Ms. Mantel describes things very sparingly, which is okay, because we are looking back almost 500 years.  Details on how people looked, the exact clothes they wore at any given time, are going to be a little scanty.  However, I felt sometimes like I was reading the action of a television show or movie, like I was listening to someone describing what was happening on a show while I was in another room.  I see this as a weakness, but that's just my opinion.

The second weakness is the listing of the Cast of Characters.  There are almost 100 characters in Wolf Hall, so part of me did appreciate the heads up of Who's Who.  However, sometimes I feel that when an author uses the Cast of Characters, it means that he or she isn't going to take the time to really explain the relationship between the characters.  For example, after Cromwell's wife Liz dies during a summer plague, her sister Johane moves in.  It's apparent that she becomes important to Cromwell, but it's not until close to the end of the book that you realize that there was probably a sexual relationship between them-- but, you're not entirely sure if there was.  In the Cast of Characters, she's only listed as "Johane Williamson, Liz's sister."  Now, I can appreciate not wanting to give away plot details, but it would be nice to have this settled in your mind.

Which brings me to the third, and, in my opinion, the biggest weakness with Wolf Hall: the overuse of the pronoun "he."  Most of the time, Ms. Mantel uses "he" to refer to Cromwell, but in a book where almost 2/3 of the characters are male, it can get a little confusing as to whom "he" refers.  Consider this sentence from near the end of the novel:  "The evening before Fisher is to die, he visits More."  Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that "he" refers to Fisher.  After all, in that sentence, there is one antecedent proper noun:  Fisher.  Therefore, "he" should be replacing Fisher.  This is what I learned in my English classes (Thank  you, Mr. Bailey).  Mr. Bailey evidently was not Ms. Mantel's  English teacher, because "he" actually refers to Cromwell.  It's not until you read several sentences that you realize this (and then you go back because you think maybe you missed something that made that clear.).

So, would I recommend Wolf Hall?  Guardedly, yes.  If you have a strong interest in this time period, if you have a clear understanding of who the major players are (or can photocopy the Cast of Characters), then I think you'll appreciate this book.  There were too many times when I was taken out of the story (meaning that  I was too aware of reading a book), but it was an interesting read, nonetheless.

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