by Hilary Mantel
672 pages, Fourth Estate
Review, Interrupted, by Paul Fenton
Some books just don’t want to be finished. I used to finish a book no matter how dull or lengthy or unsatisfying, but like my ability to consume vast quantities of sugar without gaining weight, that perseverance seems to have abandoned me. I need to be upfront about this: the following review is based on the most scant of reads. How scant? A touch over two chapters, that’s how scant. It’s a bit like reviewing a film based on the preview alone. So if you’ve landed here looking for a thoughtful, objective review: you’ll be disappointed.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is possibly not a book I’d normally pick up (I usually avoid over-hyped and over-promoted books, just to prove how cool and alternative I am), but when I was casting around the Booksquawk community for reading suggestions, Bill Kirton said, why don’t you give Wolf Hall a try? Bill hadn’t read the book at that time, so perhaps he was just looking for someone to do it for him.
It started with so much promise. Chapter one described the young Thomas More being brutalized by his alcoholic blacksmith father, and his subsequent escape from his destructive influence, and it closed with young Thomas France-bound, resolved to follow the soldier’s path. Action! Drama! This is how I like my history, Ridley Scott-style. What happened next? Chapter two happened next, and with it the swift death of my interest.
As I read on beyond that promising opening chapter, someone began to tickle the back of my head with the sleepy stick, the kind of tickling which makes you black out for five or six seconds at a time. We’d skipped More’s soldiering years and landed right in his world-wise phase, working as some kind of aide to a Cardinal, or something (I no longer have my copy of Wolf Hall, a convenient excuse for avoiding fact-checking). The raw narrative of the book’s beginning was apparently a reflection of the rough state of the character; now, holding the kind of position where he probably wore very expensive and elaborate accessories, the prose likewise suffered an outbreak of rosy fingers and lacy metaphors.
A new sensation took hold of me. This wasn't fatigue, it was some kind of loquacious delirium, where every movement of my hand to turn the page became the journey of a ponderous fleshy vessel, scraping its bow across the gritty parchment sea and cresting the peaking waves, only to be presented with an endless set stretching to the infinite horizon...
My head was spinning with over-indulgent composition. I raced to my bookshelf and took a long pull on some Hemingway, then knocked back three quick Amy Hempels. As I felt my sentences contracting and my metaphors calming down, I returned to the Wolf (with a copy of The Old Man and the Sea in my back pocket, just in case).
I didn’t drop the book at that stage; I’m not that flaky. I did reach one point though where it felt too heavy to support. Here’s a slice from that point:
" … as they are brought into coiled proximity, their eyes are filled by each other, and their tiny lungs breathe in the fibre of bellies and thighs."
Do you know what’s being described there? A tapestry being folded. A freaking tapestry! Maybe I’m being excessively unfair, but that passage was the beginning of the end of my efforts at finishing Wolf Hall. The death blow came when I sat down at my desk that morning and my colleague Claire took one look at what I was reading and said “Stop, just stop right now.” I normally ignore people I work with wherever possible, but I’d recently come to see Claire as a reader with similar tastes to my own (see earlier reference to cool and alternative). “Don’t do it,” she said. “I made the mistake of reading it, and those are hours of my life I will never see again.” I took her advice and dropped it. I left it on my desk for about two months hoping a curious cleaner might take it, but they never did.
This, I reminded myself, is why I should continue to avoid over-hyped books. And the marketing on this thing -- it even came in a choice of colours! A choice of colours for a book, red or black! It's like Harry Potter, I thought, except both versions are the adult version. I opted for the black, which in hindsight might have been a mistake.
I should have bought the red. Red goes faster.