Are you familiar with the Tudor family? Thomas Cromwell? Anne Boleyn? Thomas More? These names may ring a distant bell for my fellow Americans, but they are as commonplace to a Brit as Abraham Lincoln is to us.
Often, parallels are drawn between Henry VIII’s rule and the American Civil War as turning points in each country’s respective history. That is, while much as been made in historical fiction about the Civil War a similar body of work revolves around the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII and the subsequent re-imagining of church and state. According to critics, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (and later the book’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies) is the most superbly painted portrait of that time.
It’s always funny to read historical fiction from another country. What seems so relevant and obvious to a citizen of that country can be quiet confusing or obscure to an outsider. While I feel like I’m picking up on quite a few subtleties in the novel, I must be missing dozens more. There are in-jokes and hidden criticisms on modern day England, as well as sexual innuendos and political satire. Wolf Hall is heavily saturated with pleasures for the careful and nuanced reader.
And while the novel is fun and entertaining, I feel like I am slogging through the final 100 pages. I want it to be over, which is not a feeling I relish in a book. And it’s not because I am bored (at least I don’t think that’s it…), rather I feel a little fatigued. I’m ready to not work as hard to catch the jokes and reread passages that went over my head. Do you ever get this way with a book? It’s happened to me several times before (a hazard of earning a master’s in English literature) and I always feel a bit of a traitor to the novel.
But the historical novel, especially one about another country’s history, is a departure for me so I’m happy to be reading it and ever broadening my perspective. It won the Man Booker Prize several years ago, and Mantel has been touted as an exceptionally adroit writer. Indeed, there is poeticism and lyricism to her words and loads of dry, English wit. I would recommend it if you have the stamina.
As I mentioned last week, I recently purchased Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart and I’m looking forward to reading that next. I read Super Sad True Love Story by Shteyngart a couple years ago and I still think about that book on a regular basis (to those who have read it: I say JBF at least once a day, much to the chagrin of my sister). It is so impossibly funny and irreverent and deeply satisfying. I would highly recommend it. My book club is reading Beautiful Ruins next month and I can’t wait to read it again. It too is terribly funny and moving and I found myself slowing my reading pace if only to let the book last a bit longer. Let’s all read it and come back here to discuss, mkay?