It’s probably very shallow of me, but I tend to suspicious if something is too successful – if I see a book that gets lavished with critical acclaim, heaped with literary prizes and is in the bestseller lists, too… then I usually assume that it just can’t be any good. I tend to think that I’m probably right on the spot with that assumption most of the time, however there is the occasional exception, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is one of those.
What fascinated me most about the novel is its narrative voice – it is written entirely in third person present which is rare in itself and a very strange choice for a historical novel which after all is supposed to deal with things lying in past. Instead, in Wolf Hall you get a sense of immediacy pressing down on you, and it’s hardly accidental that so many reviewers point out how good Mantel is with the sensual details of the period. Also, the tone of voice comes across as very congenial – almost as if the novel was told to the reader by an actual person, someone who has seen it all and now tells it by the fireside over a glass of wine (or more likely, given the length of the novel, over several bottles).
Interestingly, though, this up-close narration also has the exactly opposite effect of distancing the reader from the events of the novel. For one thing, while there is a strong feeling that the narrator might be an actual person we never find out who is – the only person who could conceivably know everything the narrator does seems to be Cromwell himself, but the hypothesis that it is him telling his life in third person is contradicted by the narrator’s occasional use of “we” that keeps popping up in several places throughout the novel. Also, while the narrator’s implied familiarity with the events and persons lends a sense of immediacy to the narration, it also excludes the reader, at least up to a point: While it is possible to follow events with only a minimum of prior knowledge about Tudor England, as Mantel slips in everything needed to understand what is going in – but it requires the reader to pay attention and keep on their toes to catch everything (if only to keep the host of people named “Thomas” apart – the proliferation of that name being something the novel itself jokes about on a few occasions). This prevents the reader from settling too comfortably into the novel and keeps Wolf Hall from becoming a cozy historical and keeps it a constant challenge – and a thoroughly rewarding one, in the opinion of at least this reader.
Apparently Wolf Hall is just the first part of a trilogy, with two more volumes Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror And The Light to follow, so there is more to look forward to.