Book Review: Wolf Hall By Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s recent death prompted me to pick up Wolf Hall her epic 16th century fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s turbulent court. Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble beginnings rose through perseverance and ambition to become a political fixer and ruthless servant to the king. It is through Cromwell’s third person POV, with his wit and intelligence, that we travel the thirty-five years of English and European history.

Cromwell had a hand in all the important matters of Henry VIII – both personal and professional. He was central in trying to bring about the annulment of Henry’s marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to clear the way for him to marry Anne Boleyn. His political maneuverings were key to the battle between Catholicism and Protestantism and Henry’s desire to separate the Church of England from the authority of Rome.

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh

As with all great epics Wolf Hall is abundant with intrigue, betrayal and bloody battles, but an easy read it is not. The prose is sophisticated and eloquent but the cast is large and the narrative so rich in complexity it requires your full attention to keep across who is who. The more you know about the political history of the time, the easier it will be for you to follow.

Wolf Hall is a novel about the old world but it also shines a light on contemporary concerns such as religious extremism, government abuse of authority, separation of church and state, the wealth-poverty gap and all the exploitation that divide entails, torture, and national conflicts driven by private motivations. Perhaps humanity has not changed that much…

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.

Iceland’s last public execution took place in 1829 when a man and a woman were beheaded for a murder that took place on a remote farm. The woman was detained on a farm over winter whilst she awaited her execution as there were no jails. Hannah Kent’s meticulously researched award winning novel, Burial Rites, imagines that woman story.

She made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.

The harsh Icelandic setting of the novel amplifies the brutal reality of class and peasant life of the time. Whilst interned on the farm of Margret, Jon and their two daughters, with a year to live, Agnes reflects on her life leading up to the murder. Her presence creates tensions in the family obliged to keep her, and suspicion in the local rural community. Priest in training, Reverend Tóti, there to help Agnes come to terms with her fate is the device that helps unravel Agnes’s story, maintain peace in the family and develop their relationship with the condemned woman.

Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.

Kent has conjured up a voice from the margins in Agnes, a whip smart, dirt poor peasant girl – a combination that set her up for trouble in the times when intelligent outspoken women were cause for grave concern. It was these qualities that drew the attention of freethinker Naan Ketilsson whom she was subsequently accused of murdering. She is only a whisper away from being called a witch.

They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted.

The language and voice in the book are striking and amplify the gothic feel of the story through its analogies and painterly descriptors. Burial rites is gothic romance with the feel of an Icelandic saga that deals with ordinary people living in extreme conditions. A remarkable, dark debut novel by Hannah Kent who went on to write The Good People and Devotion.

“He lay back down on the snow. “What’s the name for the space between stars?” “No such name.” “Make one up.” I thought about it. “The soul asylum.”

Book review: The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

The Animals at Lockwood Manor is a gothic queer historical fiction come love story set in London in 1939.

Awkward but determined Hetty Cartwright, an assistant at the history museum has to evacuate the museums sizeable taxidermy collection to a safe place called Lockwood Manor in the countryside. Lockwood turns out to house both attraction and danger.

This was their chosen sacrifice: where other owners of country houses would be preparing for evacuated children and babies, the Lockwood would receive a quiet menagerie

The taxidermied animals move around the house at night, a ghost lurks the hallways, the house staff are hostile, as is Major Lockwood who owns the property, and bugs start eating the taxidermy. However, Major Lockwood has a beautiful but emotionally unstable daughter Lucy and the two women develop a bond.

I had never been the sort of person who was first to offer sympathy, a handkerchief, a listening ear, to an acquaintance who looked distressed, but something about Lucy made me wish to be. I wanted to help her; I wanted to make her smile.

The story is a slow burn. Gently spooky, atmospheric and moody with plenty of creepy cliffhangers. Themes including misogyny, lesbian love, outcasts, colonisation, class, sexual violence and facing your fears. In was particularly fascinated by the taxidermy.