Thoughts on reading: Wolf Hall

I’ve been putting this one off since the end of September. It felt a bit like hard work. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the Book Club book for September but this time I can’t blame the Book Club for making me read something I wouldn’t have touched otherwise because there was already a copy on book mountain when it was suggested.

It was winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize and I don’t often read those, but sometimes they pique my interest. Reading this was a strange experience and I think the reason is that there are a lot of things that I like about this book but in the whole, I didn’t enjoy it.

I loved the character of Cromwell. Mantel made him really sympathetic without compromising the hardness of his character. The description was lush and vivid, full of sound, smell, touch and movement, and using metaphor to work every ounce of worldbuilding out of it. It was loaded with symbolism – and I did like that because I felt I understood what was being conveyed. Sometimes I read books that are heavily symbolical and I feel like I speak a different language to the author because, although I recognise that an object is a symbol, I’m clueless as to what it’s a symbol of. Not in this case and I found it quite instructive in how symbolism can be used in a way that supports description and setting. Rather than being wanky.

The viewpoint in Wolf Hall is quite experimental. It is in limited third person and is so tightly held to Cromwell that it is almost first person. It’s also in the present tense which is hard to sustain over 160,000 words. That was impressive but I wondered if this was the reason I found this book very hard to read. It was so slow. It took me a good couple of weeks and I spend at least two hours a day reading and I’m a fast reader. But I recently read another book in the present tense, of about 140,000 words, and that was a very quick read. Both would also be considered literary fiction, so it’s not the genre. The length of it was off-putting to some members of the book club, but what’s 160,000 words in epic fantasy? Nothing! Anyhow,  it was hard work. So much so that I had to stop in the middle and read a Charlaine Harris. I think what Mantel did with the viewpoint and tense was really interesting but it spoilt the enjoyment of the story for me.

I liked the title, but in the end I felt that that was misleading. We don’t get to Wolf Hall until the end of the book and although in the author interview at the back of the book, Mantel says that Wolf Hall is a metaphor for Henry’s court, I didn’t get that. And given that her use of metaphor was so effective throughout I don’t believe that she meant that. I think she just liked it as a title and used it even though it wasn’t quite right for the book.

There was a lot I liked about this book and I wanted to enjoy it. Because it was so slow and such hard work to get anywhere with, I didn’t enjoy it. In spite of all the things I liked about it. In spite of a great character, brilliant dialogue and gorgeous writing. I was frustrated and disappointed.

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