on 13 July 2012
My first book review, and I'm writing it because I'm annoyed. After reading much praise and noticing Mantel had won the booker prize I bought myself a Kindle version, but within a few pages I started becoming distracted by the structure of the writing.
I hesitate to challenge Mantel's grammar because I already know how well this book has been received, but from my point of view it's all over the place. I'm well aware that the rules of syntax can be broken for a number of good reasons, but if Mantel's approach is deliberate then it's completely lost on me.
The first problem is the use of the word 'he', at every opportunity, to refer to all of the three, four, or five people participating in the same scene. You're often left having to re-read every other sentence and to try and guess which person is speaking or being referred to. So determined to stick pronouns everywhere the author often puts one unnecessarily in front of a person's name "He, Cromwell, said..."
The second problem is the inconsistent format for denoting speech. Sometimes it has quotes around it, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you're reading something a character is thinking followed by what he's saying and then, even, what the narrator thinks about it, but without any syntactical indication of which is which.
Elsewhere there are multiple people speaking in the same paragraph, with and without quotes. Why?
Here's a good example of much of the above - all quotes and commas exactly as in the text:
'Yes, yes,' Cavendish says, 'we'll order up the barge.'
Good, he says, and the cardinal says, Putney? and he tries to laugh. He says, well, Thomas, you told Gascoigne, you did; there's something about that man I never have liked, and he says, why did you keep him them? and the cardinal says, oh, well, ones does, and again the cardinal says, Putney, eh?
He says, 'Whatever we face at journey's end...'
After a short while you begin to realise that 'he' is often Cromwell... except on the myriad occasions when it's not.
I hope this is not me being thick - I'm no scholar but I have read plenty of challenging books, written centuries apart in many different styles. I'm not convinced this is a deliberate style, but then I keep reminding myself it must have been edited and reviewed by somebody who makes it their business to scrutinise these things, and then it went on to win a prestigious writing award. Maybe I am being thick.
Leaving the grammar aside it reads like it's been heavily abridged and the narrative skims across time so rapidly it's often like reading a montage - a series of vignettes. Some characters are dwelled upon, others appear to step forward for a single line and then stand quietly to one side like a bit-part in a play. It's often as if the assumption is we're all Tudor historians and only need to read the person's name to understand their significance.
I'm giving this three out of five because I'm a big fan of well researched, rich, historical, fact-based fiction. This book could have been a favourite of mine, as it appears to be for many others, but it's let down too much by the choice (let's assume it's deliberate) of grammar and structure.
It's a comfort at least to know that I'm not alone:
A year after Mantel won the Booker Prize for Wolf Hall David Mitchell's 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' failed to make it past the long-list. Mitchell's book is also a well researched, historical and (partially) fact-based book of a similar length. For me there is no comparison at all. Mitchell's writing is breathtaking; Mantel's is distracting. With Mitchell I was completely immersed, standing alongside the characters while the plot unfolded, with Mantel I was staring at some text on a page and trying to make sense of it.
on 28 January 2013
She, the reviewer, thinks that she, Mantel, has written a novel which manages to be both stimulating and frustrating. She starts to ask herself `Why did she detract from the quality of her work by adopting such a silly writing style?' but then she remembers that she, Mantel, often doesn't put speech inside speech marks, and so she resolves not to do so for the rest of her review.
She, the reviewer, says, she has written a wonderfully plausible account of his, Cromwell's, thought processes. Which other novel does a better job of getting inside the mind of a major historical character, she asks herself. None that she can think of, she concludes. And she appreciates how wonderfully, through the medium of his thoughts, she has managed to illuminate life in Tudor London. She very much enjoys some of the rich humour in her descriptions of his dealings with people at all levels of society ranging from him, Henry, down to near-paupers. She also marvels at her wide-ranging research, which provides a wealth of historical detail and contains almost no errors. She says, almost, because she does detect a few minor mistakes, for example her description of his, Cromwell's, accusation that one of his, Norfolk's, ancestors helped to "disappear" the princes in the tower; which leads her to say, doesn't she, Mantel, realise that the use of "disappear" as a transitive verb only started in the late 20th century and was surely unknown in Tudor England? But she forgives her for such minor lapses: she says, they aren't important when set against all the good things in the book.
But then she thinks of a few things that perhaps are important blemishes. She wonders how she can write about the Tudor court and make relatively little effort to get inside her, Anne Boleyn's, mind, and her, Catherine of Aragon's, mind; not to mention his, Henry's, mind. She concludes that although she captures him brilliantly, she doesn't really illuminate the overall politics of the Tudor court very well; she thinks that she, Philippa Gregory, does a better job in this respect though she readily accepts that she, Mantel, is a more rounded literary novelist.
Then she asks herself why she makes the book unnecessarily long by inserting so many scenes with minor and largely inconsequential characters. She is almost tempted to skim her reading of some of these passages.
And she also thinks that she is over-rated by the professional critics. She marvels at the book's dust-jacket, which quotes Diana Athill comparing Wolf Hall with Middlemarch. She, the reviewer, thinks, does she, Athill, really think that she, Mantel, is as good as her, George Eliot? She doesn't think so: she says, no character in Wolf Hall, not even he, is as entertainingly infuriating as Middlemarch's Edward Casaubon; and Wolf Hall isn't as broad-themed and timeless as Middlemarch. And she also reflects that if she were to review Middlemarch using the literary style of her, George Eliot, she would be able to write her review in proper English.
And that brings her back to her starting point: why does she, Mantel, degrade the quality of her novel by choosing to write it in a style that looks like an entry for Private Eye's Pseuds Corner? Does she think it's sophisticated? If so, she thinks she's very wrong.
on 21 October 2009
Have finished this book and am sure it's very worthy of all the accolades but I really found this quite a hard slog and I'm quite a prolific reader. The story is really interesting but I am so glad to see other reviewers on here that had the same horrendous problem of trying to follow who was talking whenever there is any dialogue. Fair enough to refer to Cromwell as "he" if you're going to stick to that and use it exclusively, but when you use "he" for other people during the same conversation, it's really confusing and I found myself having to re-read paragraphs containing dialogue (as a result this took me so much longer to read than normal and I feel like I've read it 3 times). Obviously am not one to comment on such a good writer but it would have been so much more of a pleasure (rather than a chore) to read if it had been either written in first person or clearer reference used as to who is talking.
on 16 June 2009
Anyone who paid attention in history classes at school will need little background to the events of Wolf Hall. The key events of the story take place over just less than a ten year period from the 1520s to the 1530s. Mantel has taken what is, supposedly, Britain's best loved history topic, Henry VIII and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, marriage to Anne Boleyn and the resulting split with Rome and has melded it into a compelling story.
She has obviously had some of her work done for her - the key dramatic events, characters, plots and intrigue are fairly heavily based in fact, but what Mantel has done is to breathe life and substance into the historial figures to make them loveable, hateable, complex characters. At the centre of her book stands Thomas Cromwell, a man from humble origins who rose to unprecedented power in England as Henry's chief minister. Cromwell is beautifully portrayed and his personal relationships, be they loving, tragic or political are fascinating reading. The relationships with Wolsey and More in particular are executed wonderfully (no pun intended in the latter case).
My only grumble with the book were that some events are included, but skated over in short passages and other events are included, but drag a little. This is probably an inevitable part of a historical novel covering such a long period of time; you can't simply leap forward 2 years and avoid the need to understand certain intervening events. However, whilst this slows the pace of the book in places, I enjoyed the book so much that it didn't particularly spoil it for me (indeed, those who prefer a fast paced novel are probably not going to enjoy Wolf Hall).
The book ends shortly after the death of Thomas More, and I can't be only one who wonders (and hopes) whether we might yet see a second, "decline and fall" book. I'd certainly love to read it.
I have made a number of attempts to read this... because I love history, I love the tudors and I am fascinated by Thomas Cromwell. But each time I have given up because I find the plodding narrative style distracting and hard to keep up with who is who.
As has been commented on before Hilary Mantle's has a habit of repeated using "He" and "Him" when there are a number of people in the frame and she leaves it unclear who is speak and to whom, making this hard work when it should be enjoyable.
It is very well researched and that is what makes it even more fustrating for me
I really want to enjoy this but I can't
Its 500 years since Henry VIII came to the throne and a raft of books and documentaries have emerged accordingly. I am fascinated by the Tudor period and have briefly dipped into Hilary Mantel's work by reading the marvellous "An Experiment In Love".
However, despite getting to around page 87 and liking the angle (its told from Thomas Cromwell's point of view), I just couldn't plough any further.
Its a clever book, and weighs the same as a brick, so I thought I was in for a treat, but despite the profound detail and incredible research, I just lost interest. Since its so intelligently written, I can't help feeling its my fault. However, I am not afraid of heavy going tomes being an English Graduate but this saw me off I'm afraid.
The scenes and transitions made it hard to follow and I often had to turn back a few pages to see who was who again. After about the fifth time, this irritated me despite my friendly intentions towards the book and I gave up.
You may have more luck then me, but it just didn't "flow".
on 13 August 2013
I feel like such a philistine writing this as so many have enjoyed this book but I have to say that it just didn't work for me. The main issue is that the style that it is written makes it incredibly difficult to follow what is happening and who the action is following. This meant that I found it very difficult to emotionally attach myself to the characters and to be honest I often found myself meandering through the text and then giving up and getting a cup of tea.
Maybe it's just me but sadly I do not rate this book. Sorry
on 3 June 2013
I am sorry but I must agree with some of the reviews above. I know that this title won the Man Booker but I just cannot understand why. The grammar and the general style of writing in this book is absolutely dreadful. 'Confusing' really doesn't cover it. There are so many characters in this book, which in itself is fine but the continual use of "he" "his" "him" "she" "hers" etc without so much as an attempt at indicating which particular person she is talking about is just 'mind boggling' and completely ruins the read. She can begin one sentence with "He" finish it with "Him" with a couple of "His" in between and you eventually realise that it was referring to 3 different people - but which ones? I have lost count of the number of times I have had to re-read previous pages to try to decide who she is actually describing. I really did want to read this book, I love this period in our history and I already have "Bring Up The Bodies" waiting in the wings but it is going to take so long to sort this one out I'm not sure I have enough life left to do them both.
Very very disappointed.
on 12 September 2011
Mantel's Thomas Cromwell, the hero of this novel, is a man out of time, a modern man caught on the borderline between the superstitious Middle Ages and our more enlightened - but still angst-ridden - world. The very notion of Cromwell as an heroic figure goes against the grain, the received wisdom of standard histories in which the man is customarily presented as a ruthless schemer, an opportunist without morals or positive emotions; yet here he is, a sentimental family man, and not merely a first-class brain but someone with feelings and flaws, fully human:
'He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.'
Wolf Hall's story - that grand, bloodstained and unforgettable period of Queen Catherine's fall and Anne Boleyn's rise - is of course well known but very well told; in fact, I doubt there's ever been a better English historical novel. In truth, there's almost too much to praise: every character, no matter how minor, is memorable; there are subtle forerunners of future Royal tragedies, unthought of in the Tudor period (Catherine's tightly-bound bodice is 'bejewelled as if to ward off blows' reminding one of the tragic Romanovs' fates); there are sublime moments when we step outside of the story's main thrust - Shakespearean interludes when the reader can almost see the mist rising from the Thames, hear the cries of the boatsmen, watch dandelion clocks borne on the summer breeze - while Mantel has Cromwell's thoughts tell us home truths that the sheer distraction of this world's 'show business' obscures:
'The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.'
The old cliché is nevertheless true of Wolf Hall: all human life can be found here, its good and its bad. The prose perfectly portrays those brutal, beautiful times, and is peerless. Forget the trashy 'Tudors' and a thousand other bodice-rippers - Wolf Hall is everything that is brilliant and rewarding about the best stories, and this one in particular tells the most enticing truths and nontruths.
An astounding book, easily the most magnificent history lesson I've ever received.
on 6 August 2013
I have tried very hard with this book, but I have finally given up around half way through. The writing style is ridiculous. It is very hard indeed to follow who is talking and about who. I liked the idea on the whole of the story, but life is far too short to get a headache every time you want to read your book. I love reading historical novels, but hated reading this.