Sunday, 26 September 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Ah, the joys of books on tape. There's no way I'd have finished this monster of a novel without some fool reading it to me. And I probably couldn't have remembered who all the characters were without said fool (Simon Slater, as he deserves a mention) having different voices for each of them.

Well worth ploughing through 22 hours worth though. It's the story about Henry VIII's fixer Thomas Cromwell, the son of a violent blacksmith who becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom. Apart from the king, obviously. And he was the driving force behind the most important event in English (and Scottish) history since the Norman invasion - the split from Rome. Which was also largely about sex.

T Cromwell (yes, related to O Cromwell, but that's way in the future) has been portrayed many times, and usually as a villain. I've seen Donald Pleasance do him very effectively. In Wolf Hall, he's pretty heroic - very smart, very capable and ruthless but also loyal and kind.

Henry is a believable prince - selfish and petulant but also superstitious and insecure. Cardinal Wolsey also comes across really well, big hearted, wise and vain. The women are all great - Catherine, Princess Mary, Ann Boleyn, her slutty sister Mary (Scarlett Johanssen in that movie.) Thomas More - the hero to Cromwell's villain in A Man in For All Seasons - is portrayed as a weird, stubborn sadist. His execution closes the book, so this is really the rise of TC. There's a second book which'll go through the darker stuff - the abolition of the monasteries, the execution of Ann, five other wives, the execution of Cromwell himself and his head getting stuck on a spike. A low point, obviously.

It's a good book, but not an easy read. It's pretty hard to follow even if you've got a basic idea of the players and plot, and since this is a Booker winner it's very literary, which means there are layers and subtleties behind everything. I suppose that's pretty apt for a subject like Cromwell.

I've got another Booker winner coming up - Peter Carey's book about Ned Kelly. The hoon better have a bloody tin helmet. Before that I'm listening to Alistair Campbell reading his diaries and racing through some Stephen King. Neither are as subtle as Thomas Cromwell but they are a lot of fun.

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