Sunday, January 17, 2010

Finishing the Year: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Patricia Cornwell's The Scarpetta Factor

Oh dear! Once again, I am woefully behind in recording my reading. At the moment, I'm reading Penelope Lively's The Family Album, having finished Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood as my first 2010 book. But I still haven't posted my Books Read in 2009 because there are still two outstanding for me to discuss.

As you might expect then, the discussion will be very limited.
First, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was a delightful surprise. I'm not sure what I expected from a historical fiction, and a Man Booker prize-winner at that, but I didn't quite expect such immediately engaging and compelling reading. While the opening pages offer a rather daunting "Cast of Characters" suggesting a potentially dry and/or demanding commitment to names and dates, they should rather be interpreted as suggestive of the Drama they generally introduce. This is not dry history. What I was relieved to see was that neither was it a tendentiously revisionist history. While I'm politically very appreciative of feminist retellings, I often find them heavy-handed and tiresome. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, for example, embraced by many of my book group friends, left me more irritated than entranced. Not the case with Wolf Hall. Here the revision is not particularly aligned with an ideological or political position other than the one that says the personal, the immediate, and the domestic, matter. It's more a question of bringing the lens in closer and of bringing it to places that tend to remain unseen. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's trusted counsellor, is himself such a lens and is simultaneously its object.

Pater is going to read this book soon, after he finishes Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. He's primarily interested in it for the same reasons that The Sopranos fascinated him -- the study of leadership and the politics of management -- and I think he'll find the time spent with this hefty novel (650 pages) well worth the effort. I will definitely be tracking down other titles by Ms. Mantel -- have you read this one or others?

And to tidy up the year, I'll note that I read The Scarpetta Factor, Patricia Cornwell's latest, a Christmas treat as it was still in hardcover. Not as wonderful a treat as last year's hardcover mystery post-Christmas reading, it nonetheless provided several contented hours in my leather armchair, enjoyment supplemented by the occasional Christmas chocolate or slice of fruitcake. I was pleased to note that Cornwell seems to be continuing the upward trend I noticed in the last Scarpetta, enough to keep me interested in these characters' development, although I'm still not sure she will ever be able to regain the conviction with which she sketched them in the first five or ten of this series. Still, there are some lovingly detailed meals here, a feature that both Pater and I used to really appreciate in some of the early Scarpetta.

So there you have the last of my year's reading. The next post, I hope, should offer up all my 2009 titles, and by the end of January I should finally have moved myself into 2010. Meanwhile, I've got a literature-referencing post over at Materfamilias Writes, in case you missed it, and I'm going to include here the poem that I've posted over there, a P.K. Page poem I'd never paid attention to before, and only spotted while going through collections of her work after her death on Thursday.

Knitter's Prayer
Unknit me --
all those blistering strange small intricate stitches --
shell stitch, moss stitch, pearl and all too plain;
unknit me to the very first row of ribbing,
let only the original simple knot remain.

Then let us start again.


  1. I'm probably in something of a minority here but, much as I admired Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, I didn't find it as all-absorbing as her superb novel, A Place of Greater Safety - just about the finest fictional account of the French Revolution that I've read. For me, it brought the architects of the Revolution to life in a way that even the finest non-fiction account of those turbulent years could never quite do. But best read, perhaps, alongside your personal choice of non-fiction account (eg Simon Schama's Citizens).

    The critical response to this earlier work, it was much like the response to Wolf Hall: many readers / critics were in awe; others less so. (Well, that's books for you!) I'm firmly in the Michael Snedecker camp (see relatively recent review in Counterpunch: ).

    I know that you and Pater are frequent visitors to Paris so I mention A Place of Greater Safety just in case you have not read it. I think you will both enjoy it - definitely worth reading before your next trip.

    Meanwhile, I've just given some thought as to how I read Wolf Hall and A Place of . . . with the former, the reading went at a fairly sedate pace: one chapter at a time was enough, whereas I could hardly bear to put the earlier novel aside. And if I left too long a gap between reading successive chapters of Wolf Hall, I often had to re-read the preceding chapter to get back into the flow of the narrative. However, in terms of characterisation, Cromwell is brilliantly drawn and I'm sure that I will never think of him in any way other than as the man who strides through the pages of Wolf Hall.

  2. 60/16: Thanks for this response -- it's great to have another attentive reader commenting here -- my virtual book club!
    As I mentioned, Hilary Mantel is a new-to-me writer, and much as I enjoyed Wolf Hall, I'll trust your suggestion that I will find her coverage of the French Revolution even more rewarding, especially as I have a special fondness for Paris. It's on my list, absolutely!
    Now I'll go check out the review you've cited. Thanks again for commenting.