Posts Tagged ‘Wolf Hall’

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.

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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.

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I loved this book, for so many reasons!!

It is the story of a week in an unnamed village in an unspecified part of England at an unspecified period. And I loved the timelessness of Crace’s prose: his narrator’s language is lyrical and deeply informed by the landscape but not archaic or faux-authentic.

If we were identifying a period for what is quite clearly an historical novel, the brief reference to the plague and the enclosure of the common ground to make way for an invasion of sheep would put us in the early seventeenth century, perhaps a hundred years after Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies was set.

There are clear links between this book and Mantel’s. I wonder whether Harvest would have been as lauded as it – quite rightly – is without Mantel’s winning the Man Booker. Historical fiction seems to have been an overlooked genre in the past, somehow insufficiently literary. No-one reading Harvest could doubt its literariness: almost every page oozes metaphor with an extraordinarily well judged balance between the literariness and the narrative voice. The language never asserted itself to the detriment of the narrator’s character.

The character of the narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an interesting one: he is introduced as one of the fifty-eight villagers working to bring in the eponymous harvest; but he is also articulate beyond his fellow-villagers and somehow distant. Even a passive observer of events rather than an active actor. There are narrative reasons for that distance: when his master – and milk twin – Master Kent married into the local landowner’s family, Thirsk entered the village with him as an outsider, residing at the manor house; only when he married the villager Cecily, did Thirsk join the village. He himself dwells on the correct lexis to describe his position: settled into the village but not a part of the village; sometimes included in the first person plural pronouns we and us; sometimes not.

Thematically, however, Thirsk’s isolation and greater or lesser exclusion from the village is key. Over the seven days of the novel, the village faces waves of outsiders arriving: firstly, Mr Earle – nicknamed Mr Quill and quite possibly the closest thing to a hero this book has, however unlikely an epithet that might be for him – who observes and notes down and records the village, cataloging and categorising each part of the land in preparation for the enclosure of it; three strangers appear, evicted from some other village by the same enclosure of land; Jordan, the usurping landowner using local superstition and his ancient claim through his bloodline with Master Kent’s dead wife to forge a modernist future; and Jordan’s men, rough, ignorant and cruel. Amongst this heady brew of locals and outsiders, crimes are committed, injustices rendered, deaths dealt.

This brave new world sweeps away ancient and traditional ways of life, extinguishing them.

There is one character, the one woman in the group of three outsiders, who dominated the blurb of my copy of the book. She has a tiny role: we see her briefly four times and I don’t think we ever hear her voice. She becomes an object of fascination and horror for the narrator for whom, as a widower in such a small village with almost no single women, the appeal of a new female has a magnetic carnal appeal. She is almost a cipher rather than a character: she lurks outside the harvest dance like Banquo’s ghost; she evades every attempt to find and protect her, or to find her for less hospitable reasons; she never quite escapes the word witch once it is bandied about loosely. Her name is never discovered save for the label Mistress Beldam.

Crace is never, in this book, romantic or idealising in his depiction of village life: the harshness and paltry returns for back-breaking work is unstintingly conveyed. There is a lyrical delight, however, in the language and idioms of the countryside as well as its traditions: the Harvest Queen, the ribaldry of the harvest scene which opens the book, the named of the flowers and plants.

What Crace paints beautifully here is the end of an era, an end of a way of life. There’s no overt political motivation decrying the Enclosure Acts or the relentless march of progress – indeed, Master Kent may have been able to manage the enclosure peacefully and to the benefit of all – but a simple depiction of loss. It is, perhaps, above all, an elegy to a way of life.

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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.

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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.

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Ooooo the adorable and lovely Mrs P has just returned from Exeter with my pre-ordered copy of Bring Up The Bodies.

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As a big chunky two inch thick book, released in the midst of a busy time at work, it may take a while to be able to give a full review so I thought I’d do a quick mini-review of the opening pages. A ‘taster’ if you like; or an amuse-bouche.

So Bones is a sequel to the sublime (and that’s coming from someone whose not a fan of historical fiction generally) Wolf Hall which ended with Thomas Cromwell moving into the role of Henry VIII’s chief minister, Wolsey has died, Thomas More executed, Anne Boleyn Queen.

The opening pages of Bodies picks up with Cromwell and Henry VIII (with assorted courtiers including the winning Rafe Sadler) hunting together. The first sentence is chillingly bizarre: “His children are falling from the skies”. Recalling the tender, terrible moments in Wolf Hall when Cromwell’s wife and children succumb to the plague, it is almost enough to bring a tear to the eye immediately.

Mantel in just these pages hurls us once again headlong into the Tudor world. The present tense (which usually grates with me but here I relish) thrusts us into the “gore-streaked … riot of dismemberment” that is Henry’s hunting season.

Knowing my GCSE history, as I tentatively, vaguely, tenuously do (reinforced by Phillipa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl), I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that Boleyn is executed in due course. This opening gore soaked hunting scene anticipates the inevitable fall of Anne and reinforces the blood stained history of the period. This is no chivalric romance.

There is a wonderful, lyrical quality to Mantel’s language here. The hawks (named after Cromwell’s dead children and hence explaining that enigmatic first line) fly above and bear witness to a “flittering, flinching universe”; Henry’s summer consists to the “beating off and the whipping in of hounds”.

We don’t see much of Cromwell himself here: he seems almost eclipsed by Henry’s presence. As Mantel writes, Cromwell “will defer” to the King’s or the Seymours’ stories at supper so that his work can begin as night falls. What we do see of him, however, sets him out as distinct and different from the others. Unlike the King, unlike Rafe, Cromwell does not burn in the summer sun but remains “as white as God made him” with “the skin of a lily”. This suggests again perhaps a grave-marked quality to him, possibly almost a vampiric presence: communing with his dead daughters, deathly pale, working through the night.

Overall a great opening. Not as strong as Wolf Hall‘s which erupts before us with a scene depicting the young Cromwell being beaten half to death by his father Walter in a coruscating tour-de-force!

Poor Mrs P may have to put up with an engrossed husband this weekend…. But then I also know what else she bought … 😉