Oh, Wolf Hall. So many great and beautiful moments. So many frustrating, stagnating moments. So easy to appreciate. So impossible to judge.
Hilary Mantel writes dialogue with a breezy yet deep style. Her characters say a lot by saying so little. If I’m being too paradoxical, it’s because this is a book comfortable with paradox: the lowborn rising to high positions in Tudor England. It’s a stirring tale of politics and a cautionary one about the price of true reform.
Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is comfortable operating in vacuums of power. He sees an opportunity and he takes it, no matter what the cost. She writes him in a favorable way, and you even kind of don’t mind as a reader with him doing unfavorable things because he’s trying to reform an already crappy system. I don’t think I’d like the real life Cromwell but I would absolutely get a beer with her version.
This is the fun part of the novel. The tough part is: the book is 90% dialogue and inner monologue. Mantel does little to set the scenes, trusting the reader to be knowledgable about the court of Henry VIII. I thought I knew enough to hold my own. I was wrong. I didn’t know what was going on half the time and the other half, dramatic moments lost their bite because the context was hazy. I can think of few books where I couldn’t wait to have free time to read and simultaneously couldn’t wait to put down. It took me three hard tries to finish it and while I’m glad I did, I wish the experience of reading it had been more enjoyable.
I think this would hold up much better on a re-read, now that I’m more familiar with Mantel’s style. In the mean time, there’s Bringing Up the Bodies to get to, which I hope to do at some point this summer.