NOTE TO SELF: Do not start reading giant, complex historical novels on the day your final university exam results are due to be released. Absorbing the content of such novels in the hours before such crucial, life-altering events will prove extremely difficult if not impossible. Moreover, the shocking discovery that you did indeed achieve a First Class Honours degree against all the odds (such as developing an extreme blogging addiction in the final weeks of the course instead of diligently revising French verbs for inevitably soul-destroying translation exams) will result in the aforementioned giant, complex historical novel being abandoned for longer than you anticipated and therefore will be quite hard to get back into once you have recovered from the realisation that maybe, just maybe, you will one day get a Proper Job like a Real Person and that some may even consider you to be a semi-valuable member of society once your good-for-nothing-student days are behind you.
This has been my experience of reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel this week. Obviously, the context in which I read it is always going to be more memorable for me than the content of the actual book itself. I did manage to finish it but I think that it is the sort of book you can easily give up on if you don’t invest enough time in it and keep up the momentum of reading. If I hadn’t made myself sit down and finish the last 200 or so pages today, I too would have given up on it as I suspect many others already have.
Told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, ‘Wolf Hall’ is set in the first three decades of the 16th century and primarily focuses on Henry VIII’s attempts to annul his marriage to his first wife after she fails to produce a male heir for him. It probably does help if you have a reasonably thorough knowledge of Tudor history in order to follow what happens. But Mantel has obviously done her research thoroughly and in her writing, she skilfully explains the background of events so that readers less familiar with the historical events can still appreciate it. There are a lot of secondary characters though and I found that the various ambassadors, earls, clergymen etc all became a bit faceless for me because there were just so many of them to keep track of.
‘Wolf Hall’ won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and has been almost unanimously praised by critics. Given that I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the 2010 Booker Prize winner ‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson which I read last week, I wondered beforehand if this would be another example of an over-hyped slog of a book winning one of the most prestigious literary prizes when any normal person would abandon it forever after three chapters. Even though I don’t read a great deal of historical fiction, it’s pretty obvious that ‘Wolf Hall’ is a step above the average for that genre in terms of both its scope and literary ambition. Mantel’s interpretation of events is richly detailed and brings real life to the character of Thomas Cromwell. I look forward to reading the sequel ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ at some point in the future – hopefully when I am less distracted by other things.