Saturday, November 23, 2013

362 (2013 #46). Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel,
read by Simon Slater

This 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize (for "the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland") was also, in audio format, winner of the 2010 Audie Award for Literary Fiction.  It is a novelization of the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540.  This book is the first in a trilogy. Bring Up the Bodies (2012 Booker winner and 2013 Audie for Literary Fiction) is next, followed by The Mirror and the Light, in progress.

Written in the third person, present tense, everything is seen through the eyes of Cromwell.  The first chapter is set in 1500, when Cromwell is about 15, and briefly covers his background and youth.  Then the book jumps ahead to 1527, shortly before the death of his beloved wife "Liz," Elizabeth Wykys.

This book ends with the beheading of Thomas More in July, 1535, and with the words, "Wolf Hall," which was the Seymour family home.  In the novel, Cromwell takes notice of the young Jane Seymour, a lady in attendance to Henry VIII's first two wives, and later Henry's third wife.  In a December 7, 2012 interview in The Guardian, Author Hilary Mantel said, "The title arrived before a word was written: Wolf Hall, besides being the home of the Seymour family, seemed an apt name for wherever Henry's court resided."

Perhaps Austin Friars, the name of Cromwell's home, would have been a more appropriate name for the book, given its focus on Cromwell and his family.  This novel really "humanizes" Cromwell - it makes him seem to be more than the "Prince of Darkness" I'd always thought him to be.  Conversely, the novel - especially the audio version, with the voice narrator Simon Slater used for him - demonized Thomas More, who Roman Catholics canonized as a saint.  But, everyone has two sides, and I appreciated getting to see the other ones of these two historical figures.  In addition, Mantel's research has resulted in her novel painting a vivid picture of Tudor England in the early 1500s.

Slater, an actor and composer, does an outstanding job as the narrator.  He creates distinct voices for major characters (Cromwell, Wolsey, More, Henry VIII, etc.) and minor characters as well.  As mentioned, his More sounds particularly snobbish.

There were some times when I wasn't sure who was speaking.  Slater's narrating voice was similar to his Thomas Cromwell voice, and it does not help that Mantel sometimes uses "he" and other pronouns vaguely.  In the same Guardian interview, Mantel explains this device:

The events were happening now, in the present tense, unfolding as I watched, and what followed would be filtered through the main character's sensibility. He seemed to be occupying the same physical space as me, with a slight ghostly overlap. It didn't make sense to call him "Cromwell", as if he were somewhere across the room. I called him "he". This device, though hardly of Joycean complexity, was not universally popular. Most readers caught on quickly. Those who didn't, complained.

I think it might have been easier to follow this device in print.  The print version has the advantage of a table of contents, list of characters, and family trees for the Tudors and the Yorkist claimants to the throne.

© Amanda Pape - 2013

[I purchased the audiobook and will be donating it to my university library.  I borrowed and returned a print copy belonging to my local public library.]

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