OK – so I’m the last book blogger in the world to have read this – winner of everything going (apart from last year’s controversial Orange, when it was robbed). There is a reason for the delay. I decided I wanted to listen to the unabridged audio. My library has a copy and when I joined the queue, just after it won the Booker (October 2009), I was third in it. 15 months later, when my book group decided to read the book, I was still third in the queue. The one unabridged audio version has obviously gone walkies.
So all that waiting to read a book that was such an obvious match for me. Historical fiction, told well, I was going to love it. And I did – all 650 pages of it – it took just under a week (and one when I was working full-time) – and I could happily have read 650 pages more. Hooked into and transported back 5 centuries from that very first sentence into a violent, cruel and frankly, terrifying time. Nay, not into a world but into Cromwell’s head by means of an incredibly controlled third person narrative where he and his viewpoint are absolutely paramount. Our eyes see through his, we know the facts only if he does and revisionist as it may be, there’s sense in Thomas More’s fanaticism (though today we would call it hypocrisy) and Mistress Boleyn’s games (was she or was she not a Tudor Wallis Simpson?)
What can be said about this novel that hasn’t already been said? Nothing – it is simply superb. It transcends historical genre fiction in a way that Jean Plaidy never did. (Ah yes, Jean Plaidy, a favourite author in my adolescence. I learned a lot of what I know about Tudor Britain from her. 40 years ago, I remember she taught me the word “excruciating” – she was talking about the pain of being hung, drawn and quartered.) While I was busy learning vocabulary from Plaidy, I was busy feeling the pain of Mantel’s disembowelled monks. Wolf Hall makes you pay attention to the way it is told. It is the point-of-view, the experience of being inside Cromwell’s head that makes it, as James Naughtie said when awarding it the Booker Prize, a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the 16th century. And don’t forget the gory bits, the horror that enthralls and even when you would like to, you cannot look away.
Did Henry’s court have the same kind of hypnotic effect on his nobles and on the commoner Cromwell? Why did people put themselves in harm’s way by ingratiating themselves with the king? Proving that human nature spans the centuries, the motivations of today, prevailed then: ambition, greed, the thrill of beating the odds, denial in the form of it’ll never happen to me syndrome. But Henry’s court is Wolf Hall, a ravenous beast, and it devours many at the king’s whim in this first volume. And knowing what we know now, the clouds are gathering ominously for poor Anne ( portrayed as a harridan, but I find myself oddly sympathetic – perhaps I’m too conditioned by the sympathetic Anne of a Thousand Days). Meanwhile Cromwell is at the height of his career and influence but having nailed himself to Anne’s mast, he’s going to have to be a master tactician to emerge unscathed from what’s coming next ….
Mantel has talked about how much she enjoyed writing Wolf Hall and the story of Cromwell’s ascendancy. I just hope that the story of his demise proves not to be too traumatic for her – because like many others, I just want it to be rolling off the presses now!
We mark our reads out of 10 at the book group. Surprisingly perhaps Wolf Hall did not garner 10’s all around. For some it was too gory, for others, no matter how well history is packaged, it is still history. Oh yes, and up here in Motherwell, it is English history. Anathema to some! However, one member tried to give it 20 out of 10. I stand alongside her and if I could give Wolf Hall 10 stars out of 5, I would. Instead I’ll settle for 5 red stars – I confidently predict this will be my book of 2011 – and that if there’s a future Best of the Bookers, Midnight’s Children now has a rival for its crown.