Wednesday, February 10, 2010

of wolves and halls, or, how i got my reading mojo back

The last post I wrote about books I was feeling dissatisfied. I kept picking holes in everything, books were annoying me rather than engaging me and even Agatha Christie was not up to par. It was a disgruntling time. Luckily, come Christmas I got a bunch of books to read to hopefully get over it. And get over it I did! The first book I read was 'Wolf Hall' by Hillary Mantel, and that cheered me right up.

I don't know if I've ranted about this before, but I have a slight aversion to historical fiction. It's just that I've read too much bad historical fiction, and although there is some that I like (Phryne Fisher from the '20s, Rosemary Sutcliff's books from all over) there are a few things that just bug me and they happen over and over again:
Anachronistic characters. I know that it might be hard to make sympathetic characters with an unsympathetic worldview, but when you are, say, in a society where women have a lower status than men then you should expect a fair few characters to act/think accordingly.
Anachronistic writing. Throwing in archaic terms out of nowhere makes me grind me teeth, they grate, sound so cutesy, losing power to write sentences... It's hard to describe this, it's just that a book will be written in modern, up-to-date English, and then to make it more 'authentic' they throw in a couple of words (usually 'courses'. For some reason that gets me the most) that seem so out of context I think it undermines the writing. It's like they can't make up their mind quite what style they're using.

Well that was really by way of a long intro to let you know I have some hang-ups, but happily 'Wolf Hall' made me realise I shouldn't be so prejudiced, and just generally blew me away. If the character's were anachronistic, I believed in them anyway, they had the context and character development to back up their views. There may have been a small exception, but I forgave it, mostly because I just LOVED the characters. The main character was Thomas Cromwell, and while I hear he hasn't always been viewed sympathetically I haven't read 'A Man for All Seasons' and I didn't need to be persuaded very hard to like him. Not by any means a perfect hero, but I did enjoy spending a books worth of time with him.

And the writing. Well. It was crisp and clear with small moments of beauty, and I only realised two thirds of the way through the book that it was written in present tense. Usually for me that is a massive drawback, but it didn't get in the way here, and in fact did its job in adding to the immediacy of the book. It's not action packed, but it definitely feels as though you don't know what the future will hold, the shifting politics at court make everyone's position unstable. And while as a reader you know what will happen (this shouldn't really be a spoiler, Henry VIII marries Anne Boleyn, she gives birth to Elizabeth, he beheads her) there's a lot that I for one did not know and the detail and the way she draws relationships really draw you in. It's hard to know where the history ends and the fiction begins (especially if, as for me, all your knowledge of this period comes from year 10 history) but it feels very real, and while there's a lot of politics and history in here, that's what the story's about (politics) and it hums along.

I was interested throughout this story, and it was the characters that kept me interested. I liked spending the time in Cromwell's company, I liked watching everyone interact, watching the royals and nobles manipulate and everyone else work them to their advantage. The story covers a short part of the history I know, which means that it feels like there's a lot of depth. And I kept waiting for things to happen (Henry to marry Anne, Anne to die, etc.) but it happened a lot slower than I had expected. Because a lot more happened between times.

In short, I would highly recommend this, for lovers of history, lovers of historical fiction and generally anyone who likes their fiction well written and their characters believable.


  1. Anonymous10/2/10 23:00

    anachronistic characters speaking in modern platitudes - blechhh...
    Your book sounds good though.

  2. Oh, I'm really interested to hear that you enjoyed this. I share your opinions about historical fiction and anachronisms (my pet hate word is 'mayhap'), so it's nice to hear when people get it right!

    I'm not sure if I'll read this, as I'm not a huge fan of the Tudor period, but it's good to know that it's of high quality in case I change my mind...

  3. It's nice to hear other people share my opinions on historical fiction. :)

    Got to repeat- I recommend this book. I think it would be good no matter your preconceptions. But then again, I kind of like Tudor history...