As a part of the "The Orange Prize is Definitely the New Black" challenge that we started over at the work blog, I finished reading Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, last weekend. And then couldn't put it down. For days. On end. Now, that's saying something for a giant hulking 650-page tome about Thomas Cromwell, of all people. Mantel's certainly not the first, nor the last, to dramatize the Tudor period in literature. The lives and wives of Henry VIII have been immortalized, studied, fictionalized and melo-dramatized for our modern age -- movies, TV series, novels abound about Katherine, Anne, Jane, etc., to the point of overkill. I reached my Henry VIII peak after seeing about three episodes of the current series The Tudors on the Ceeb a couple of years ago, and it all felt wrong, wrong, wrong. First off, and I know it's me being far too literal, but as attractive as Jonathan Rhys Meyers might be, he's just not Henry VIII material -- and neither, for that matter, is Eric Bana -- not in looks, countenance or bearing. I mean, can't Hollywood even get the hair colour right?
Annnywaaay, like most history, pop culture weeds out the most salacious aspects and runs with them, and it's not like the Tudors were lacking in dramatic moments that would work well in terms of adaptations, but it all started to feel a bit tired. I mean really tired. Like The Other Boleyn Girl might just be one of the worst films I've ever seen kind of tired. So when Mantel's novel won the Booker, I kind of thought to myself, "Really, another novelization of the Tudors? Really?"
How wrong I was.
While this is a novel very much about the Tudors, it's from the perspective of an outsider. Someone who came from nothing to make something of himself, who used his very sharp mind to control people and situations to his benefit, and not necessarily with the ulterior motives that tend to drive most characters in historical fiction (sex, greed, lust). But what I really, really enjoyed is that this novel didn't focus entirely on the melodrama, it's actually devoid almost completely of it, and instead turns its focus to relationships of all kinds and how life functioned for these characters at this epic moment in time. It's not about the romance between Henry and Anne and what it means for love and betrayal; it's about how the romance between Henry and Anne changed everything -- and the man who not only made most of these changes possible, but who also participated in creating the whole background of the time period, was Thomas Cromwell.
The novel starts off with a young Thomas getting the stuffing knocked out of him by his brute of a father Walter. Soon, he takes off into the great big world to make a name for himself, and when the story picks up again, he's done just that -- found himself a position working for / serving Cardinal Wolsey, and when that turns sour, for the king himself. Politics, or political machinations rather, take centre stage in this novel. It's about maneuvering situations more than anything, about how to be a man, and how to teach his children to be good in life, but it's also about power -- finding it, taking it, destroying it -- and all the ways it contributes to the ups and downs of the Tudor court.
It's hard to describe the novel as anything other than engrossing. I found myself totally sucked in and read the first 300 pages in just over a day -- sometimes the narrative's a bit muddled (Mantel uses a lot of pronouns and the "he's" get all mixed up sometimes. I just decided that if I was remotely confused that the "he" in question was Cromwell and that seemed to work for me) and the book's unquestionably dense -- but I couldn't put it down. When I gave my copy away mid-read to a friend (I had another at work; we'd save on mail that way), and decided to finish the McEwan novel that I'd started, I found myself longing to know what was going to happen next to Cromwell. Would he convince More to change his mind? Would he ever find a second wife? Would these ghosts ever stop appearing in front of him? Who would he marry his son off to (we didn't get that far; it must be in the second book).
ALL of these questions are answered in history, yet I longed for Mantel's perspective. I loved how she would add rich description to scenes, sum everything up with a brilliant sentence, and keep my interest in her novel far passed my bed time. This book? Definitely better than TV.
WHAT'S NEXT. I've started Attica Locke's Black Water Rising. That's #2 of the Orange Prize nominated books. Will I make the June 9th deadline, probably not. But maybe...