It seems like every woman I know either plans to read, has read, or is trying to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This 2009 historical fiction is the first in a series which takes place during the reign of King Henry VIII. The book focuses on the life and machinations of political advisor Thomas Cromwell during the rise of Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn and the initial fall of the Catholic Church in England. These plot points make it seem as though Hilary Mantel is all set to become the next Phillippa Gregory, but the words "winner of the man booker prize" emblazoned on the cover suddenly had me thinking that this was more than just a bodice ripper. Had I finally found a piece of well-written historical fiction? Be careful what you wish for because Wolf Hall is the furthest thing from Gregory's 2001 hit The Other Boleyn Girl.
(In case you missed it, and the subsequent film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, The Other Boleyn Girl is a smutty romp through much of the same history that Mantel covers in Wolf Hall. But the two books couldn't be more dissimilar.)
In the time it took me to read Mantel's 650 page novel, at least two people who saw me reading it exclaimed: "OMG! You're reading Wolf Hall?! I couldn't get through it." I myself abandoned it after only a chapter or two the first time I tried to read it. The writing doesn't invite you to plunge into the world of the story. It puts a screen between the characters and the reader and challenges you to decipher the who, where, and why. I feel confident that without advance knowledge of the historical context and events, a reader is likely to find themselves confused, lost, and frustrated.
Why did I keep reading? I was determined to finish this brick of a novel because I had to prove to myself that this author couldn't get the best of me. The entire book feels like a challenge from Mantel herself. Don't know whose speaking? Figure it out. Have no clue who this character is? Figure it out.
The book is a trip inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell, a common lawyer who rose to power and prominence with the start of the Protestant Reformation. Mantel puts the reader inside his head, and takes for granted that they know as much about Tudor England as Cromwell himself. It's a somewhat precocious assumption, but it makes for a unique and interesting read if you can push pass the initial confusion and frustration. After about 150 pages, I was hooked, and heard myself, quite unexpectedly, telling people that I was reading a really good book.
Mantel is a challenging author whose lyric prose can be quite beautiful, but her stylistic choices run the risk of feeling condescending. Instead of sharing the wealth of her historical knowledge, she expects readers to rise to her level of understanding and gives them just enough information to keep them floating.
Finishing the book was a mini-accomplishment. I've met Mantel's challenge page for page, but I definitely won't be rushing out to buy the sequel any time soon.