Saturday, April 02, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Very brilliant and very long. The Thomas More plot is sort of oddly submerged for much of the book but the novel ends on Thomas More, making you wonder if that was the point of the whole thing. Also, this business of always referring to Cromwell as "he" forces the reader to constantly second-guess who exactly is speaking. Also, why is this book named for Jane Seymour's Wolf Hall?

Quibbles. It is as sharp as a novel can be. It throws you into its world and holds you there -- no winking at the present day, no sly reveals of the many massive historical ironies we all know are in store for Thomas Cromwell, the main character, who is followed from childhood.

The novel positions itself at the moment of a great shift (the great shift?) in European institutional powers, namely Henry VIII's split with the Catholic Church. Cromwell is the bureaucratic operator most responsible for making it happen -- a canny, self-preserving social climber, yes, but also a real reformer with clear eye for making changes happen. In that respect, More is a foil for Cromwell: More is the self-righteous ideologue, Cromwell the ultra-pragmatist. That both would eventually come to the same end is sort of a grim comment on the nature of power.

And while Wolf Hall invites you to read it as the anti-A Man for All Seasons, to me is feels a bit like a 16th-century The Wire -- a granular portrait of big, creaking institutions, corrupt and massively powerful compared to the puny individuals they chew through.

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