17 June 2010

"Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel

It’s not a book I would have picked up on my own. It was a birthday gift and came much recommended and had the Booker prize tag and I’ve had good experiences with Booker prizes before. So why not? Sometimes it helps - the tags. It’s not like I run behind the New York Times Bestseller list but a Booker or a Nobel prize winner kind of guarantees you a certain standard - most of the time.

It’s a story we’ve known for a long time through history books, through movies. With ‘Wolf Hall’ Hilary Mantel attempts to bring alive the characters and details in the tumultuous life of Henry VIII through an unlikely protagonist - Thomas Cromwell. The story in brief - the deadly war between Henry VIII and the catholic church and the rise of a blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell in this context. Amidst all the historical references what makes the novel come alive is the depiction of Thomas Cromwell himself. Cromwell is a cruel lawyer, lawmaker and at the same time an understanding man, loving father and a fair master. I found myself supportive and at times even sympathetic of Cromwell in spite of his ensuing cruelties. It’s not uncommon to do that - considering Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell in the first place. While in actual history, Cromwell, in fact, meets the same end as the many others he subjected to - charged with treason and subsequent execution. Well, history also views Thomas Cromwell as the devil incarnate who fuelled the monstrous Henry VIII’s cruel and devastating regime.

What I like about Wolf Hall is not the history lesson it offers. In fact, just the opposite. Mantel chooses to look at the story from the perspective of the characters themselves - their emotions, a guesstimation of what prompted them to do whatever it is they did. She does not offer a lengthy debate on historical or spiritual consequences of the era. She distances herself from taking sides. If you are aware of the history of the period, it makes an interesting read. Especially as you know how it all culminates to the subsequent monarchs. But there are some obvious and as you will know if you look around a bit more, some oft repeated shortcomings to the book.

To start with, I suspect the whole context will be lost on you if you don’t understand medieval English history. That’s just to start with. I’ve long suspected that Booker prize winners are shortlisted based on their quaint sense of grammatical understanding and how complicated they make reading their books. Mantel fulfills the criteria hands down. The pronoun ‘he’ is used in plentiful throughout the book and often without reference to the subject itself. Most of the times it’s safe to assume that every ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, even if he’s not assumed to be in the context. But that takes some reorienting and at times rereading.

In summary, it was an enjoyable read but I’m tempted to ask Mantel to return my 4 weeks back - I could have read something more interesting.

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