Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wolf Hall, kids, and crime

Hilary Mantel's much-honored 2009 novel Wolf Hall opens with a boy being beaten by his father. The scene is graphic but not clinical about the boy's injuries. More to the point for someone who comes to this historical novel from a background of crime fiction, few contemporary crime novels, Scandinavian or otherwise, would make detachment and even humor part of such a scene the way Mantel does:
“`That’s right,' Walter yells. `Spew everywhere.' Spew everywhere, on my good cobbles. `Come on, boy, get up. Let’s see you get up. By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet.'

“Creeping Christ? he thinks. What does he mean?”
The scene's unnamed "he" and point-of-view character turns out to be young Thomas Cromwell, the hero of the book, who, by the second chapter, has grown up to be a lawyer and a confidant of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, adviser to Henry VIII on love, marriage, and other matters of the highest state importance. I don't know if the violence of the opening scene will resonate later in Thomas' life, but so far he shows no sign of being haunted or scarred, which I find refreshing and very much counter to the role young victims play in contemporary crime fiction.

Does the story's sixteenth-century setting made it easier for Mantel to write the scene the way she did?
Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors, is no crime novel. But its early pages include one passage that hints at the sort of intrigue and adventure that might attract crime readers:
“Still, he keeps up with what’s written, with what’s smuggled through the Channel ports, and the little East Anglian inlets, the tidal creeks where a small boat with dubious cargo can be beached and pushed out again, by moonlight, to sea.
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger seana graham said...

I would say he is not so much scarred as formed by his earliest experience in the novel.

I think it is a bit of a crime novel, if legally sanctioned murder can be considered a crime.

It's a brilliant novel by a brilliant and slightly uncanny writer. I hope you enjoy it.

February 21, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I would offer two observations: (1) the opening scene--unflinching in its portrayal of brutality--sets the stage for brutality as a commonplace solution for disputes in 16th England; (2) the narrative point of view is one of the singular features of the novel, and it either engages or distances readers (depending upon their willingness to participate in the narrative style). Although I have not yet read the sequel, I understand that her next installment--featuring Anne Bolyne (sp?) is even better, which is really saying something. Enjoy Wolf Hall. For one of the rare times, the Booker Prize people got this one right.

February 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: I've read enough since I made the post to have come across several places where the adult Thomas Cromwell recalls and reflects on the beating. The closest I've come to murder, though, is the humiliation of Cardinal Wolsey. It's early days, yet.

As for brilliant and uncanny, I think some of the quirks of Hilary Mantel's prose, such as attributions not easy to follow at first, contribute precisely the distance necessary to make historical fiction work. For me, it strikes a nice balance between grating fake archaic and off-putting modern speech.

February 21, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., see my reply to Seana in re distance. I had not yet read your comment when I posted that reply.

Your comment about commonplace violence might apply as well to another historical novel that I read within the past year or two, Ronan Bennett's Havoc, in Its Third Year. That book, as it happens, it a kind of bookend to Hilary Mantel's Cromwell books. It's set in England a few decades later, and it centers on vicious suppression of Catholics.

February 21, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I know a lot of people have found the way it is written offputting, at least initially. But I have to say I never had any problem with it. I think this is because however we read it, it is conceived very lucidly.

February 22, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It took me a few pages to realize that "he" in the novel's free indirect speech was Cromwell. But yes, I'd see the novel seems exceedingly lucid and and well planned so far. (Sorry about the adverb, R.T. I'll excise it when I reprint this comment in my memoirs.)

February 22, 2013  

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