The Hall of the Lame Wolf

Spoiler Check: I am about one-third of the way through Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Not that spoilers are much of a consideration in the context of a novelisation of well-known historical events.

Books Not everything I read is SF or fantasy. Wolf Hall is a hugely successful mainstream historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, who acted as Mr. Fix-it for Henry VIII, everyone’s favourite Tudor King. Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize and other things for it.

At the moment, I am trying to re-engage with Wolf Hall, having put the book on pause (literally) upon the release of A Memory of Light, the final Wheel of Time book, on 8 January. I had started Mantel’s novel on New Year’s Eve and got through about 8 hours out of 24, on Audible, before the Wheel-of-Time-induced moratorium. On completing AMoL, I picked it back up again to find that the Android Audible app had helpfully forgotten my place and reset the book to the beginning. It must have decided I had given up on it (i.e. “lemmed it”). If so, it was not far wrong. I had more than trifled with the idea of abandoning Wolf Hall as a bad job.

The question is: why have I found this massively popular book so much of a slog? There are a number of reasons, and oddly enough my enjoyment of Fantasy books may be part of the problem.

The first issue to note is the narrator. With audiobooks, the choice of narrator is critical to the reader’s enjoyment, maybe far more so than might be imagined. A bad (or poorly chosen) narrator can ruin what might otherwise have been a wonderful book, much as great narration can turn an average or mediocre book into something quite pleasurable. Yes, the author’s words are all still there but the narrator’s voice is the conduit you have to connect with. I find Simon Slater’s rendition of Wolf Hall a real turn-off. His default voice, which he uses to narrate Thomas Crowmwell’s thoughts, recollections and observations, is only mildly annoying. The voices he adopts for the characters’ dialogue are an altogether different matter. Particularly Cardinal Wolsey, who does a lot of speaking in the first third of the book; less so later after his fall from grace. Now I can understand why Simon Slater came up with a thoroughly unctuous and sanctimonious voice for the portly, ageing Cardinal but that makes it no less painful to listen to.

The narration is not though the only problem. It may be a matter of expectation on my part. The reason I decided to give Wolf Hall a go was that I happened to hear Hilary Mantel interviewed on BBC Radio at the time that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was going on sale. Mantel painted the latter book as a gritty, no holds barred portrait of a callous, determined, power-hungry man who would stop at nothing to secure personal power while in the service of the King. It sounded like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire transposed into the world of real history. That would be irresistible. But there would be no point starting with the sequel, and Wolf Hall had achieved such acclaim…

In the event, I have so far found Wolf Hall to be somewhat lame and rambling. Thomas Cromwell comes over as a decent and honourable man, despite his difficult early life and the various personal tragedies he has suffered. Devoted to the Cardinal he served, even after the latter was stripped of his position, and still trying to get him reinstated while finding himself caught up in serving the King. He is intelligent and capable but oddly unconflicted, uncorrupted (unlike all the other nasty caricature nobles at Court) and certainly not power-crazed. For the most part, the book’s “action” boils down to a bunch of conversations which lack the wit or cutting edge of a Tyrion Lannister. Mostly quite twee.

Essentially, the book lacks punch and worse, lacks focus. Mantel adopted a narrative style centred around Thomas Cromwell’s “stream of consciousness” which basically means that it is forever diverting into recollections, anecdotes and flashbacks, sometimes recursively. The result is a highly non-linear narrative flow. Maybe Mantel thought this would make the novel distinctive, or “modern”. Certainly it is a good way of bulking it up. But it does interrupt and dissipate the thrust of the story. The asides and rat-holes would add something if they entertained or illuminated, but mostly they are a frustrating distraction. Ultimately, that is the main reason I have struggled with Wolf Hall.

Still, the flow has settled down a bit and the story is showing some faint signs of gathering momentum so the likelihood is that I will not be lemming Wolf Hall for at least a while yet.

FOOTNOTE: Isn’t life full of odd coincidences? Today I decide to write a short post about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, who also wrote The Giant, O’Brien, a fictionalised story about a real-life oversized 18th Century Irishman, whose bones are on display at the Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn  Fields, London, which is where I happened to attend an all day seminar yesterday (at the College not the Museum). The seminar was about Risk Management – nothing to do with giants, surgeons, wolves or halls.

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