I haven’t found anything wildly compelling to read since devouring the first five books in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, in the wake of watching four seasons of the TV show (Game of Thrones) in under a month. I can’t wait for the next instalment, due this year, but at least now I’ve got another series to keep me guessing.
I’m the sort of person who’s always reading magazines and interviews with artists of any medium, and writing down their various recommendations for books and movies. Some of these are scrawled on scraps of paper; others in one of the many blank journal/diary type books I have lying around.
Before coming to Saudi, I collated these notes into a single little book and one author’s name kept coming up: Hilary Mantel. So I downloaded Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies onto my phone and, once I’d finished with a few other books I was in the middle of, started reading the first one – my hopes high for something special.
If you don’t know, the books are 16th century historical fiction, with Thomas Cromwell as their protagonist. I think the story could easily have started at the beginning and made for a captivating bildungsroman but instead it jumps around – starting roughly in the middle and going mostly forward, but with flashes back to Cromwell’s early childhood, or roguish years on the make in continental Europe.
The style is unusual and took me a while to like: the story is very much centred around Cromwell but the perspective is sort of removed from him. Like a bird’s eye, omniscient view where he is always there and yet somehow a shadow. One interesting feature is that Mantel regularly says “he” or “his” without any preamble – we ought just to know she is speaking of Cromwell, even if the preceding sentences were about King Henry or some other dignitary.
The writing is superb: beautiful, evocative imagery matched by witty, biting dialogue, which is frequently hilarious.
Luckily for me, I know a bit about English history but not enough to know all the details of the plot – and I don’t intend to check Wikipedia for a spoiler, either. So I’m intrigued about how he’s pulling off the monumental change in law necessary for Henry’s divorce, and about what comes next.
One particular mystery for me at the moment is that the title is Wolf Hall and yet that place has been referred to only in passing so far, as the home of one Jane Seymour – I think – and so the plot must be due to thicken in that direction before too long.
The past really does come alive in these pages, and yet it’s funny to be reading it on a modern device. I find e-readers really come into their own with books that would otherwise be a brick. Brilliant.