Let me just tell you now that Wolf Hall is brilliant– as rich a contemporary novel as I’ve read in a long time. But I feel it’s less helpful to use this space to tell you how and why it’s brilliant than to tell you how to enjoy it.
Because you might not otherwise, and that would be a shame. Wolf Hall is as a good as the amount of time you’re willing to invest in it. You don’t have to research political figures of sixteenth century England, but boy would that help. Do study the list of characters–which runs for several pages and is mostly comprised of Thomases, Henrys, Marys, and Annes–like you’re cramming for an exam. And the geneology tree, that’ll make itself useful, too (or you can just use the rule of thumb that all of these people are cousins or in-laws and rarely be wrong.)
You might wonder why a historical novel should ever be written in what’s almost Joycean structurefuck prose. Each time Wolf Hall draws you in with its complex relationships and the occasional “aw, snap!” dialogue comeback, it threatens to boot you back out again with its syntactical nonsense. Hilary Mantel likes to omit quotation marks and shift perspectives on the fly to give her prose an interesting flow, but the result is often distracting. Her writing has plenty of other “what the hell was that?” moments. A paragraph begins with the sentence, “So: Stephen.”
Get used to that.
Also, in dialogue or action, the pronoun “he” always refers to the main character, Thomas Cromwell. For the sake of character sympathy, Mantel confusingly avoids referring to him by name whenever possible to close the gap between you and him, and also to slip it by you that he’s a Cromwell.
Roll with it. Relish the idea of your protagonist being a lowborn but well-spoken, Machiavellian thug who scares the living pantaloons off the trust fund babies in Henry’s court. He’s your guy and they’re all douchebags, anyway, especially Thomas More (whose penchant for racking heretics sure does a number on his Man For All Seasons legacy.) Cromwell is despised by everyone who can’t get something from him. He is, though, not unscrupulous and is perhaps most admirable as a mentor and family man.
This is a political climate where all sorts of people die all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons. In Cromwell’s position, to no longer be useful to Henry means ruin and eventual death. See how being a man in power necessitates brutality, and how being a woman in power necessitates strategic promiscuity. Consider how much Cromwell’s rise changes the face of England, and how much it changes him.
It’s an England in flux. The “rainy island at the edge of the world” is finally being remade by the European renaissance–not by the artists yet, but by the Italian-educated merchant-types who’ve mastered the art of the backroom deal:
The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water.
Though it takes a while in a novel this heavily populated, the vivid characterizations eventually resolve into a clear picture. Henry alternates between being a fussy, appetitive infant and a shrewd, sharp-eyed renaissance man. Anne Boleyn is exactly the kind of serpentine “virgin” who can wreck a 20-year marriage by her own designs (and of her father’s, who is essentially pimp to his girls). Though he’s no large player here, I particularly enjoyed seeing the drunken libertine Thomas Wyatt being as whiny as I imagined him.
Metaphors are everywhere. Stop to ponder them if you have time or let them wash over you, like Mantel’s refrain of England being a dampened land of serpents and ghosts. There is genuine depth here that gets plumbed in rereads.
The storytelling is opaque. The characters are mostly indirect with each other, and the narration is mostly indirect with you. It’s sometimes a sweat to figure out exactly what’s going on.
Mantel wrote a great novel and put two walls in front of it–a bizarre prose style and a vague approach to the storytelling–at least one of which is unnecessary in my opinion. That’s why I dropped Wolf Hall in the first place months ago, but I would’ve been very sorry to have left it entirely.