by Hilary Mantel
I’ve long been a fan of Man Booker Prize winners. I haven’t read them all by any means, but looking over a list of winners recently moved me to a reverie of affection and reminiscence for some of my all-time favourite novels. The Bone People (1985) by Keri Hulme is there, a book I have returned to over and over again since a battered copy was given to me by Kiwi friends in 2001. There’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Salman Rushdie’s ‘Booker of Bookers’, which satisfies my hunger both for Rushdie’s writing and for good Indian literature. Possession (1990, A.S. Byatt) is there, and The God of Small Things (1997, Arundhati Roy), The Life of Pi (2002, Yann Martel) and Ghost Road (1995, Pat Barker).
Not all Booker Prize winners have moved me in that way. I’ve repeatedly failed to get to grips with anything written by either Thomas Keneally or Peter Carey, Booker Prize winner or no. I gave up on Keneally’s Schlinder’s Ark (1982) after about 50 pages and joylessly and doggedly furrowed through Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), wondering how a life so rich could be transformed into something so dull. A friend recently gave me a copy of the 2018 winner, Milkman by Anna Burns. I know nothing about the book, but I’m looking forward to reading it.
Despite Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall being the 2009 winner, I resisted reading it for nine years. And when I use the word ‘resisted’, I mean it. The idea of reading a fictionalised account of an historical figure didn’t appeal to me and, although I am as fascinated as anyone by the reign of Henry VIII, I’ve never been a fan of historical novels, with all their swishy dresses and sword play, and previous fictionalised accounts of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I (both read many years ago) had left me cold. In addition, someone had told me (I don’t remember who) that Wolf Hall was all but incomprehensible, written in 16th Century English and in such a way that it was impossible to figure out whose dialogue was whose. ‘Well, life’s too short for that’, I thought, remembering Carey and Keneally.
In June, a friend loaned me her copy of Wolf Hall, and made me promise I would take care of it and return it to her as soon as I was finished. She insisted that if I could make it past the first eighty pages I’d love it. Not only did she give me Wolf Hall, she also gave me Bring up the Bodies, the second book in the trilogy and itself winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2012. My friend obviously had high hopes for my liking these books.
I started reading Wolf Hall on a bus journey on a hot Andalucian summer morning. It didn’t take me eighty pages to get into it. From the opening line, of a small boy lying bleeding in the dirt, I was hooked. As I read the book, Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist, became a real person to me. He was no longer just some historical figure, a mover and shaker in the court of Henry. He became a flesh and blood man. Mantel charts his rise from a blacksmith’s son in Putney to, some would argue, the most powerful man in England at that time. In charting that rise, she instils Cromwell with humanity, a man whose actions are informed by his childhood and his past, a man filled with loss and pain. Mantel always writes Cromwell in the third person, so that, while he is at the heart of the story, he remains a shadowy figure in political circles, despite his power but perhaps because of his background.
Not once, through the almost 700 pages, did I think, ‘Did that really happen?’ Unlike my previous experiences with fictionalised accounts of historical figures, I didn’t question whether one character had really said something to another character, or whether relationships between people had really played out the way they were written. Mantel’s book is so beautifully, so tightly written that the line between fact and fiction quickly became unimportant to me. The writing was all that mattered, and the story. Mantel’s truth is no more or less real than the version in the historical record or the version of the revisionist historian.
When I wasn’t reading Wolf Hall, I was thinking about it. I longed for Thomas. I wanted to know how he was feeling, how he was coping with grief and loss, how he would deal with Thomas More or Henry’s latest whim. In all the years I resisted reading Wolf Hall, I never imagined that I could develop a crush on the protagonist. I had never imagined it was that kind of book. But it is that kind of book, and I defy anyone not to fall in love with Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell.
By the end of the 672 pages of Wolf Hall, Katherine of Aragon has been divorced, Anne Boleyn is Queen and Elizabeth has been born. (These can’t really be plot spoilers. This is history). I decided not to read Bring up the Bodies immediately, thinking it would be best if I took a break with something lighter. I read two other books in between, which, at any other time, would probably have proven highly satisfactory. But after Wolf Hall they only filled me with disappointment. I couldn’t take my mind off Thomas Cromwell’s story. I know what happens next in Henry VIII’s story, and I guessed that Bring up the Bodies would bring us to the death of Anne, and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. But what about Cromwell? Where would he fit into all of this? Like a long-ago boyfriend, I wondered where he was now and what he was doing.
While the reviews claim that Bring up the Bodies is a stand-alone novel, it picks up immediately from the point where Wolf Hall ends. One of the great joys of this second book in the trilogy is returning to other characters in the book. In both books I found Henry, Anne and their hangers on far less interesting than Cromwell’s own household – his nephew Richard, son Gregory and his once ward, Rafe Sadler. They humanise the story, with their jokes and their nicknames (Call-Me-Risley), and their tender relationships with Cromwell humanise him all the more.
I read Bring up the Bodies during a week when I was housebound and chair-bound with a bad back. This time I didn’t pine for Thomas when I wasn’t with him, because he was with me almost all the time. When I got to the end of this second novel I immediately wanted to open the first page of The Mirror and the Light, the third book in the trilogy. Unfortunately, it’s not due to be published until the spring of 2019, so I had a few months yet to wait. I’m still waiting. Rumour has it that Hilary Mantel is finding it difficult to write Thomas Cromwell’s downfall and death in this inevitable final installation. I don’t blame her. Part of me doesn’t want to read about his fall from grace and his death. How can I? Mantel has written Cromwell into my heart and I’ll be heartbroken to let him go.