Three book reviews

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Wolf Hall is the plump opening tale of Thomas Cromwell, and his rise from a child abused by a brutal father to one of Wolsey’s servants to one of the key players in the court of Henry VIII as the king pursues Anne Boleyn and breaks with the Catholic church.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically as someone of low estate who rises in the face of class prejudice from the likes of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. Sir Thomas More is an academic snob, who looks down his nose at those who are allegedly intellectually less capable than him. (I don’t know to what extent this is an accurate portrayal of More and his attitude towards others; nor do I know what his interactions with Cromwell were like; his character seems to be fictional, but it may be based in reality; More has always seemed to be someone who was at least admirable for standing up to the tyrannous Henry over his split with Rome.)

Although Wolsey fails to get Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and then fails to become the Pope to achieve the same end, Cromwell finds favour with the king and continues to rise even after his first master falls.

As others have noted, Mantel has this oblique style of writing where she starts talking about a character without stating which one. Most (all?) of the time, it’s Cromwell, but the style can be irritating because it’s unnecessarily obfuscatory, and apart from being a quirk, it seems to have nothing to recommend it. Whatever Mantel’s aim might have been, such vagueness soon loses its novelty value.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis de Bernières.

I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin many years ago. De Bernières’s proclivity for sounding like the worst excesses of a Chinese SAT word-list book did not endear him to me and smacked of pretentiousness. The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts was recommended to me by a colleague of mine, who handed me a battered volume.

The story is is a collage. Part of it is about a village which is likely to find itself targeted for having Communist sympathies when it has no particular political inclinations. Part of it is about the clandestine programme of savage torture in the capital and the Disappeared. Part of it is about a band of guerrillas, and part of it is mystical and faerie tale like. But part of it is also de Bernières expostulating anthropologically about some aspect of South American society over many pages when a brief paragraph would have been sufficient.

The author also once again resorts to the pretentious style of writing of which he is so fond.

Sometimes the tale is amusing, and at other times, unremittingly grim. The title is really just there to catch the eye because Don Emmanuel’s nether parts don’t feature that much, and the war surrounding them comes to nothing.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts is a book which doesn’t appear to know what the author wants it to be. Perhaps a series of short stories might have been better.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom.

Matthew Shardlake, like any good fictional ’tec, has a particular quirk, viz. he’s a hunchback.

His boss, Thomas Cromwell, sends him off to the monastery of Scarnsea where another of Cromwell’s people has been murdered. Shardlake arrives as a reformist with the dissolution of the place hanging over its head.

In best Inspector Morse style, there are two more murders, and the corpse of another victim, is dredged out of the fishpond. If that wasn’t enough, there are thuggish monks, gay monks, ethnic-minority monks, and a mad Carthusian to contend with as well.

Shardlake doggedly investigates the entire sorry affair while his zeal for reform is tempered by his experiences, including Cromwell’s indifference to admitting that the evidence against Mark Smeaton, the musician who was executed for allegedly bonking Anne Boleyn, was fabricated.

In his first book in the series, Sansom hasn’t quite got the style right. It feels clunky and clumsy as if he sat down at his desk one day and decided to have a crack at doing some creative writing. As well as his awkward style, Sansom has a tendency to repeat (novel) words in quick succession, which makes them stand out. I suppose it’s something that I latch onto because I see it so much in my pupils’ writing, and even though the word in question may not be significant, it sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. A little revision wouldn’t have hurt.

I’ve now moved on to the second book in the series. We’ll see whether Sansom’s writing improves with experience.


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