On Wolf Hall and the Man Booker Prize – East Hampton, NY
I don’t place much value on prizes – or best-seller lists – to help me decide what to read. But I have found that the Man Booker Prize is usually awarded to a book of extraordinary depth and originality, so I follow this prize looking for gems. Noteworthy among the titles I found among Man Booker winners or short-listed titles were: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999), Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002), On Chesil Beach (2007) and Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan, and White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008). These are all must reads…up there with The Essays of Montaigne and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. That is why I was so disappointed by Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner.
Wolf Hall is undeniably a tour de force. It is the story of Thomas Cromwell’s ascent to power and fortune during Henry VIII’s notorious reign. Unlike other historical or fictional accounts of the era that I have read, this one paints a sympathetic portrait of Cromwell and depicts in vivid and convincingly accurate detail the way of life during those times. Some of the language is breathtaking and the author’s eye/word coordination is admirable. My chief criticism of the book, however, is that the author seems more determined to impress the reader with her cleverness and wit, as well as knowledge of historical events, than she is in moving us forward and touching us inward with the extraordinary emotional impact that these events must have had on the characters. Instead of a riveting story, we are left with a rather pretentious accounting. Mantel also introduces what seems like hundreds of characters, none of which emerge as truly important to the story except Cromwell of course. These characters appear as cameos and bit players; just as we start to think we could get involved with them they disappear. I would have liked to know more about Cromwell’s father and wife, the nun who feigns to see the future, etc. The characters are just props to set the stage with.
I enjoyed the portrayal of Cromwell himself as a kind of Dick Cheney to Henry VIII’s George Bush – a master manipulator, behind the scenes string puller. Ironically, both Henry VIII and George Bush have something else in common…they seem proof that the choices leaders make really can change history.