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1,381 of 1,479 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Is it me, or is the grammar atrocious...?, 13 July 2012
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This review is from: Wolf Hall (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-10 of 163 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Oct 2012 08:36:21 BDT
carter59 says:
Thanks for PJB for pointing this out. I was thinking I was thick too!. It gets annoying reading a page twice just to get the gist of who said what. This is clearly a very important and exciting time in our history but it would have been a better read for the " thick" had it been less confusing.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Oct 2012 16:33:29 BDT
Hoka says:
Thank you to PJB for his review. I've resisted reading "Wolf Hall" and was about to buy it. I have found, in the past, that Booker Prize-winning books have simply been beyond my comprehension and I've given up, just as I did with "To The Lighthouse". You do wonder if you're thick, especially when you admit you can't read Virginia Woolf! As "Wolf Hall" is the first volume of a trilogy and the second looks set to win the Booker next week, I felt I should read it. Am now hesitating.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Oct 2012 17:09:59 BDT
I picked up a few from this year's Booker long-list: The Lighthouse (odd), Evening Mists (dull), Harold Fry (cute). In fact, thinking back through the Booker Prize winners I've read over the years my conclusion is that the judges are looking for something very different from me. It's a bit like the Turner Prize - they think it's great; I think it's nonsense.

Thankfully Amazon reviews allow us to cut through those pretentious layers. In future I think I'll base my shortlists on public opinions rather than publishing industry awards ceremonies.

Posted on 15 Oct 2012 11:45:46 BDT
A. Shah says:
I disagree regarding the grammar. This seems to be a deliberate attempt to get a vague, dreamlike quality - almost like magical realism. I think it adds a lot to the atmosphere of the book.

Posted on 16 Oct 2012 23:07:19 BDT
I agree with A Shah - the dreamy quality is definitely a deliberate grammatical ploy. It still irritated the hell out of me, though.

Posted on 17 Oct 2012 09:08:13 BDT
This sounded like the kind of novel that I 'should read' and certainly is of a genre that I think I would have enjoyed. However, after reading the short extract I've decided not to bother... a real shame but my opportunities for reading are a bit limited and I haven't got the time to decipher such a pretentious ( in my opinion) writing style in order to enjoy the story!

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Oct 2012 11:11:25 BDT
B. J. Legge says:
I have to say: this is the best reason we have libraries. I never buy a book if I can help it, unless it's by an author, whose work I know and admire. This is a plug for Libraries: use it or lose it.

Posted on 17 Oct 2012 11:35:24 BDT
Clare says:
Thanks for this.. I was also just about to buy Wolf Hall, now I'm downloading samples of this and the David Mitchell book you recommend before making the decision.

Posted on 17 Oct 2012 14:32:46 BDT
Bookworm says:
I am glad I read this review, it has rather put me off buying the book. I also agree with Hoka, being a Booker prize winner implies a lot, obviously, but not necessarily what everyone wants to read or finds comprehensible.


Posted on 17 Oct 2012 21:06:35 BDT
Lynda says:
I hate poor grammar. It is so hideously commonplace these days. Even teachers don't speak properly! Is it not an insult to the reader to have to pour over bad writing? I expect more from a prize winner. I'm going to look out for David Mitchell now.
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