For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. My Mum was a big reader and our house was always filled with books. It’s family lore that no-one taught me to read, I simply picked it up as though by osmosis from the stacks of dog-eared P.G. Wodehouse and Monica Dickens novels that lived in the house like old, familar friends. By the time I started work on my graduate degree in English literature, reading several books each week, every week plus a dozen or so articles wasn’t a big deal.
But as a certifiable book geek, I’d also read for fun.
After putting down the assigned reading, most night I’d crawl into bed and polish off a few chapters of whichever book I was reading for the sheer enjoyment of it.
I’d often stay up until four a.m. just to finish a book, simply because I could. Back then, no-one would wake me through the night needing to be fed and changed, and no one would woof at the crack of dawn wanting to be run for four miles.
Now, nearly a decade later, the degree is hanging on the wall, the thesis is gathering dust on the shelf, and instead of falling asleep reading the latest bestseller, I fight to stay awake through the umpteenth rendition of “Goodnight Moon”.
But I still read.
Not as much, and not as voraciously, but give me a good page-turner and I’ll happily ignore the laundry and the vacuuming.
One of the latest books I’ve made it through in between those laundry cycles is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It’s one of those books that have sat on my shelf for several years. Periodically I’d pick it up, read a few pages, get distracted, pick up something else, and forget about it.
But when I was trying to quell the panic of waiting for the new baby to arrive, I picked it up again and this time I kept reading.
There’s something intoxicating about Mantel’s narrator’s voice, the way the story unfolds through his observations and reflections. It’s not precisely a stream-of-consciousness novel as there are some additional narrative supports, but it is the voice of Cromwell that dominates — and eventually enthralls.
I’d heard of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, architect of the King’s first divorce and his remarriage to Anne Boleyn, and later to Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. But I hadn’t known much about him beyond that royal association. I hadn’t known that he was born a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, a mercenary and an entrepreneur. I hadn’t known he’d worked his way into Henry’s confidence, eventually becoming one of the most powerful – and feared – public figures in Tudor England.
What’s remarkable about Mantel’s writing isn’t just the skillful way she gradually reveals these aspects of Cromwell’s personal history through dream-like flashbacks and late-night reflective conversations; these are writerly techniques, handled with prowess, but conventions nonetheless. What makes Mantel’s novel stand out for me is the sense of future time, of known history as yet unwritten. So much historical fiction, and particularly that which deals with famous figures, takes the known facts of history and ascribes characteristics to their protagonists that effectively guarantee the outcome. The books become self-fulfilling prophecies, exercises in what was always about to happen. But listening to Mantel’s Cromwell speak and think — and that is precisely the impression the author creates, that we readers are privy to his most guarded exchanges and innermost thoughts — there is a sense of contingency, of unknown possibility, and of real danger.
Mantel’s sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, picks up where Wolf Hall left off: Anne Boleyn is queen and Thomas Cromwell enjoys growing influence over the affairs of England, both political and romantic. As the story unfolds, Anne struggles to produce the male heir upon whom Henry’s lineage and the future of England depend. Ever the strategist, Cromwell seeks to employ this political and romantic instability to his advantage, engineering the rise of Henry’s new favourite, Jane Seymour. I am now more than halfway through and find myself torn between wanting to keep reading and continue to be immersed in Cromwell’s world, and terror at having to wait until Mantel’s final book in the series, The Mirror and the Light, is released in 2019.
What are you reading this summer? Do you have any recommendations?
Next Up: Christopher Moore’s Fool and The Serpent of Venice