As a child, I was completely and utterly obsessed with the British monarchy and more specifically, Tudor England. I had a bookshelf filled with English history books, my favourite movie was Elizabeth, my hero was Anne Boleyn and my bedroom walls featured posters of the Tudor family tree. I soaked up anything and everything Tudor-related. I was an expert on the era by the time I was 12 years old. And just in case you’re wondering, no, I did not have many friends. I didn’t need them – I had Tudor England.
Fast forward to Christmas 2009. My incredibly thoughtful mother saw Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel being discussed – and praised – on a talk show. For those of you who don’t know, Wolf Hall is a novel chronicling Henry VIII’s break from the Roman Catholic Church and marriage to Anne Boleyn from the eyes of Thomas Cromwell (Thomas More’s archnemesis). The next time my mom was at Chapters, she saw the same novel was a Heather’s Pick and had won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. So she did the right thing and bought it for me for Christmas.
I was excited to receive the book and even more excited to read it. It had been a long time since I’d delved into the world of Wolsey, Norfolk and Cranmer. But since I was finishing up the fourth and final year of my journalism degree, I told myself the book would have to wait until I’d graduated the following spring.
True to my word, I didn’t begin reading Wolf Hall until I was free of academic obligations. I thought it would be a relaxing and captivating escape (like my mother, I had heard good things). Boy, was I wrong. After only a few chapters, I realized I was reading a novel more challenging than anything I’d read during my entire university degree.
I’m not exaggerating. I don’t even know where to start. First of all, the writing was true to the era and therefore convoluted, not to mention the elaborate language and complex sentence structure. Each sentence refers to “he” multiple times, but each time refers to a different person – without explanation. The cast of characters easily fills the first five pages of the book. I couldn’t get into it because I was too busy looking up the significance of every person who entered the story.
In summary, Wolf Hall was damn hard, damn complicated and made me feel pretty damn daft.
The worst part was that it was so challenging I lost interest. I got about halfway through and decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I shelved the book until a rainy day months later and tried to start again where I’d left off, and failed. This failure repeated itself over and over for almost three years.
Fast forward to the summer of 2012. My co-worker and friend Erin tells me she plans to read Wolf Hall. I dutifully warn her how difficult it is, but I also let her know I’m still determined to finish it. We decide to read it together, hoping the mutual support would get us through. Alas, after six strenuous weeks, we both finished reading the now infamous Wolf Hall.
We agreed the book was incredibly challenging and therefore not really enjoyable. But we also agreed that it is a masterpiece of historical fiction – we were in awe of the amount of research required and Mantel’s attention to detail. Her story-telling technique was unlike any other. It is told from the perspective of Cromwell, who has traditionally been depicted as the era’s villain (if you’ve seen the 1966 movie A Man for All Seasons, you know what I mean). It offers an interesting counter-narrative with Thomas More as the bad guy.
But when Mantel released the novel’s sequel, Bring up the Bodies, we both swore up and down that we’d never read it. No way – not putting ourselves through that again.
And then Hilary Mantel did the unthinkable. Bring up the Bodies won the 2012 Man Booker. And Erin and I collectively fell off our office chairs in disbelief.
Mantel is only the third author to win the Man Booker twice, but she is the first to win the prizes so close together and the first to win with a sequel. That is a huge accomplishment. And she’s writing a third novel to complete the trilogy.
This tells me that I’m missing something.
I began researching what other bloggers had to say about Wolf Hall. Madame Guillotine had high praise for the novel (although she acknowledges some may find it difficult), In The Room blogger Graham said he’d recommend it “to anyone with even a passing interest in history or politics,” and editor Maggie Fergusson from The Economist’s Intelligent Life wrote about The “Wolf Hall” Effect and how it has taken the world by storm. I only found a couple bloggers who agreed with me (Carmen from the Singapore National Library Board was one of them).
What is it about Mantel’s writing that I just don’t get? Sure, she’s crazy intelligent and her writing is obviously a work of genius, but is that what the Man Booker is rewarding these days? Novels that are over the common folks’ heads? Last year’s Man Booker winner, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, was brilliant, but was certainly more appealing to the masses. I consider myself more educated and competent than the majority of people, and I found Wolf Hall too difficult, so I wonder how many people will truly enjoy and appreciate Mantel’s writing.
I was floored when Bring up the Bodies won the 2012 Man Booker. But the question I can’t stop asking myself is this:
I’m a smart girl, so why is Mantel over my head?