Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’


Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.


I do love a book with a map in its cover!

2015/01/img_6591.jpg I must confess I’m not entirely sure what this map adds to the book, but at a personal level, I used to live pretty much where Shardlake’s house is! Inside Lincoln’s Inn. Abutting Chancery Lane.

And that, pretty much, sums up the appeal of the Shardlake series, of which this is the sixth. They are familiar and comfortable. The Tudor era is familiar. The legal world of the Inns of Court are familiar. The recurring characters of Guy and Barak are familiar.

And there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

I have missed the two preceding novels, Revelation and Heartstone, but there’s nothing here that depends on a prior knowledge of those – or any previous Shardlake stories.

There are three interrelated plots within the novel: an ongoing bitter legal case which generates new friends and new enemies for Shardlake; an instruction from the Queen, Catherine Parr, to Shardlake to investigate the disappearance of a dangerous book; and domestic tensions within his own household. These plots alternate and weave together more successfully than I’d felt previous Shardlake novels had done. The conclusion twists deliciously and harrowingly for its protagonists – and the reader. And a continuation to the next book established in the epilogue. Shardlake is a cash cow that Sansom clearly intends to continue milking!

And why not?!

The book is very much a transitioning work: it marks a somewhat brutal retirement of Barak and Tamasin; the introduction of a new assistant, pupil barrister Nicholas; a complete gutting of Shardlake’s own household; and, of course, the anticipation of the death of one King and succession of another. I’ll miss Barak, who I hope may make guest appearances in the future, and particularly the somewhat fiery Tamasin, although Nicholas has promise as a character.

So, beyond the comfort and familiarity, what does the book offer? An effective enough depiction of the final months of Henry VIII’s reign as a time of religious and political turmoil. There are a few slightly clumsy expositions of Anabaptists and Lollards – the benefit of Nicholas’ role: the worldly Barak wouldn’t have needed the history lessons! Plot points were repeated slightly too frequently for my liking: Shardlake sometimes ruminated on the plot to himself, reported to the palace and then discussed the case with Barak later. I would like Sansom to have a little more faith in my ability to keep up. Similarly, the machinations of the Court politics and the ruse and fall of traditionalist or reforming sympathisers was expounded too much. And if another person commented that Secretary Paget followed the King and did not seek to lead him, having learned from the mistakes of Wolsey and Cromwell one more time, I might have … tweeted angrily!

Perhaps I have been spoiled though. After Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, almost every depiction of Tudor London will seem … Well, monochrome.

I’d also have liked the trail to have been a little less obvious. Shardlake – to me – needs to be piercing in his intellect and perspicacity. Here, his investigations were a little ‘plodding’: only four people had access to the Queen’s room when her book was taken, so he interviewed them and followed the leads. A murder had been committed and the neighbour had disturbed the murderers, so he interviewed them and followed the leads. I did wonder once or twice what Shardlake offered the investigation which others couldn’t provide beyond what we might nowadays call plausible deniability for the Queen.

I was also rather more interested in the legal case of the Slanning painting than Sansom seemed to be. For me – abd I fully accept it is possibly just because of my legal background – I’d have liked that explored further. The darkness eventually revealed, again, seemed a little convenient.

What Sansom has produced and offered is a well plotted, well paced, tense political thriller with a likeable cast. The tour-de-force moment, however, is the brooding, terrifying and corrupted presence of the king which presides over the novel.

I was hugely looking forward to this novel – although at 100 pages, novelette may be a more apt title – which failed to win the Man Booker prize last night.

It is the story of Mary. That Mary. Mother of Jesus, Bearer of God, Theotokos, the Madonna.

Of all figures to try to give a voice to, Mary must rank as one of the most challenging. Do you present her as an innocent and unknowing vessel of God? An active member of the church of her son? A saintly and divine figure? Otherworldly? A political activist? A mother?

How do you reconcile the myriad beliefs, doctrines and images of her? How do you give a voice to the voiceless perpetual virgin? Tóibín has done almost the direct opposite of Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall: Thomas Cromwell was a shadowy figure about whom little was and is known; Mary is and has been for centuries on the limelight.

And how do you avoid your reader having that Monty Python Life of Brian quotation in the back of their head? You know the one.

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!”

The story that Tóibín creates focuses on Mary at the end of her life, almost in hiding. Men come to visit her for her story – presumably apostles – and she distrusts them too much to tell her story. Instead she tells it in monologue to us so that the truth be told at least once.

As a monologue, the story succeeds or fails on the strength of her voice and it is a convincing and human voice. For me, personally, it didn’t quite hit the mark, however.

Tóibín’s prose is beautiful and rhythmic but I felt perhaps a little bit overly so. I didn’t feel the rawness of the pain that I imagined Mary would feel to recall how her son was taken from her. I didn’t feel her worry, her fear, her horror.

Tóibín created distance between the narrative and the events narrated, and it is clearly a recollection than a re-living – it’s not, after all, as if anyone needs a spoiler alert for it – which perhaps accounts for the reduced rawness. But it left me wanting something… more.

The best parts to the novel? I’d say Lazarus. Really interesting and reminiscent of the Duffy poem Mrs Lazarus. It seemed that Lazarus didn’t really benefit by being returned from the dead: he was sickly and weak and distant, shunned by society. The impression given of Christ by this act was ambiguous: part arrogance, partially suspected confidence trick, partly to assuage his own guilt at not healing him earlier.

I also liked her protectiveness over Joseph’s chair.

It is such a difficult task Tóibín set himself. Mary does have a cynicism which almost leads to her trying to debunk or at least question her son’s miracles, but at the same time, she recognises the power in him. So immensely difficult!

I have to say I don’t feel he succeeded fully but it is still a very thoughtful and poetic and beautifully poignant book.