Finally the exams are over and I’m allowed to read books again. I now have a pretty amazing 3-month-long holiday and I’m planning to tackle some books which I’ve had for a while but haven’t had the time (or the courage in some cases) to read. This summer I’m hoping to get through Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (who is, of course, the spawn of satan and a total nutter, but boy could she write a thirty page monologue like no one else on earth) and perhaps something Victorian-ish, like Portrait of A Lady or something by Tolstoy. I also plan to first read Oryx and Crake, then the latest Margaret Atwood – The Year of the Flood – ’cause apparently they’re linked somehow. Also Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, which has been on my shelf since over a year ago. Hopefully I’ll have time for a Graham Greene and something Vonnegutesque, like Joseph Heller or Kerouac.
But first, I’ve started the 2009 Booker Prize Winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which is a novel based around the life of Thomas Cromwell (Thomas, not Oliver – my fourth form social studies teacher didn’t seem to know the difference, something which I pointed out to her several times). Cromwell was a friend and advisor of Cardinal Wolsey, who was in turn a friend and advisor to Henry VIII. So, it’s an Historical Fiction novel, set in Tudor England. I know, right. Blerg. Boring, bodice ripping romp, with terrible inaccuracies and awful characterisations? Emphatically NO. I generally avoid historical fiction as much as I can, but when I saw that this book had won the Booker Prize, I figured it must be at least halfway decent. I was wrong, it is in fact (and I’m only 148 pages in) the best work of historical fiction I’ve ever read. It makes Philippa Gregory look like a mills and boon writer.
I think the trick is, that the novel is not chronological but jumps around a la The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Cat’s Eye. Perhaps the comparison to Cat’s Eye is better, ’cause The Time Traveler’s Wife was a little confusing in parts, but in Wolf Hall it’s perfectly clear. Mantel has a wonderful style, in parts theatrical and otherwise almost like a record of the memories of Cromwell as he remembers them. This book is chock full of political intrigue and terrible tragedy, such as the loss of Cromwell’s wife from sweating sickness early on and of course the pending doom of two of Henry’s women – Katherine and Anne – which colours the story from the first page.
While up till now, my impression of Cromwell was mostly formed, adversely, based on this picture:
(not the nicest looking chappie)
I think after I’ve finished this book, I will have a completely different outlook regarding ol’ Thomas. I’m sure he’ll still be a Machiavellian jerk, but perhaps a more human one.
Read this book and you will be hooked on Tudor history – not the bodice ripping, palace intrigue type history, but one of the most politically volatile periods in English history. If you want to read more about the history of this time, Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: King and Court is good, also David Starkey’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Starkey also has a documentary history of Elizabeth I called Elizabeth, which you can probably get from Amazon.co.uk.
Oh, by the way, The Tudors is crap. Utter soft-porn crap, which is nowhere near historically accurate. That being said, Jonathan Rhys Meyers is pretty cute really and the acting is okay. Just don’t base your history essay on it.