Friday, November 13, 2009
Happiness = Hilary Mantel
If you pick your favorite book of the year and it's November the 13th are you going out on a limb? Are you risking reputation and relevance by throwing December's releases to the wind? Years of bookselling tell me no. December is a month for sure fire bestselling authors who can rise above the Christmas crush, short run art books and hundreds more self improvement books than need to be published, shelved and ready for their few sales in January and return trip to the publishers come March. That still leaves the rest of November but too bad. I know what the best novel of 2009 is.
The best book of 2009? Can I have a drum roll please? It's Wolf Hall by my girl Hilary Mantel! Is anyone out there surprised? I doubt it. I have already detailed my love and ownership of Hilary Mantel and my excitement at her winning the 2009 Man Booker, right? Is there anything left for me to say?
The Tudors seem to be the Kennedys of England. There are countless books written about them and with a few exceptions they don't seem to be very bright. I was fearful that Wolf Hall was going to be yet another Tudor novel. After all this is the cradle to death of Thomas More story of Thomas Cromwell. The right hand man to both Cardinal Woolsey and Henry the VIII. What could be more Tudor than a novel that centers on Henry ridding himself of Katherine of Aragon and the Catholic Church?
Cromwell was a man without a past. He was an outsider of which almost nothing is known of his childhood. How does the son of a less than nobody rise to be in the privy chamber of a King of England? Mantle creates a beguiling anti hero out of what history warns us was an ugly back stabber. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a realist. He has inched his way into position and notice in order to politically and monetarily raise the prospects of his extended family. Cromwell uses what skills he's learned, what his spies can tell him, the money his deals make and the greed of courtiers to rid himself and the crown of impediments. The heartlessness of his on the job plots juxtaposed against his love of his family, his apprentices and all of his staff makes him a rich, complex character.
How much of the life of Cromwell that Mantle gives us is fact? The early years are speculation. How he rose from suspect beginnings in Putney, England around 1485 to working for a substantial Florentine banking family in Italy in 1512 without having connections and a formal education no one is sure. Is this lack of knowledge any different from novels about other historical figures? No. Why bring it up? You have to in Wolf Hall. Mantel has done such an amazing job in creating a full realized Cromwell that every utterance, every thought passes as gospel pulled directly from the great man.
Part of the success of this novel lies in the peculiar way Mantel has worked out writing this book in the first person/third person. Although Cromwell is telling the story (which would be in the first person) he refers to himself as "he" thorough out the book. I have read more than one review of the book that labels this as an impediment. I can't say that I found that to be the case. From the start there is a rhythm to the writing (and all those pronouns) that keeps it all in check. Events from the past are turned over in Cromwell's mind as he watches a young lady in waiting play with the buttons on her dress and weighs the various efforts the Boleyn's are using to maintain their hold over the King while discussing hunting with the Duke of Norfolk. In the brilliance of Hilary Mantels gifts all this happens at once. Reading Cromwell's story is not this happened and then this and then we did that and on to chapter three. You follow the tapestry of Cromwell's life: the sad past he carries with him, his philosophy, his love of family, his sarcasm and his intense desire to bring about what his King wants. It's as though the reader can float above the events of Cromwell's life to see the full picture of the man and his times. The intimate history and the greater history are both within your comprehension. It's an understanding you are awarded with because Mantel writes so well.
The history of the period is so well documented that only way left to make it interesting any more is to come in through the side door as Mantel has done here. It's all from Cromwell's point of view but that's not to say that all the other major players aren't here as well. Some of the best writing in the book are the scenes between Cromwell and More. The Anything For A Shilling Nobody vs The Saint. The cast list in Wolf Hall is enormous and Mantel is able to control them and their history. No small feat. As you read through the entire 650 pages (And not 1 is to be missed!) Mantel fills you in an all you need to know about court life, the whims of a King, the economics of the cloth trade, etc. She is able in the most casual way to make you understand the personalities of all the characters: “Anne is brittle in their company, and as ruthless with their compliments as a housewife snapping the necks of larks for the table. If her precise smile fades for a moment, they all lean forward, anxious to know how to please her. A bigger set of fools you would go far to seek.”
To have a writer that you have introduced people to for years win a prestigious award is a thrill and I'd like to thank the Academy. What's more important than the statuette or the cash for the author in my gigantic retail heart are the sales the award will bring. There is lots O'publicity when you carry the day and the votes for the Man Booker. Wonderful. The better news is that every bookstore now wants copies, many copies of your award winning title and your backlist. Ka-ging! For years I had clenched my little hands together, squeezed my ears shut and wished that Hilary Mantle would move to a U.S. publisher that would spend a little do-re-mi publicizing her and now--MAYBE-- I don't have to do that anymore. Thank you Man Booker!
Thank you Hilary!
P.S. The cover? Blah. It has a very 1970's murder mystery feel. The British cover? Worse.