A beautiful quote about parenting from Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’

I recently finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking novel about four male friends living in New York. Described in this review as “dark and traumatic” and “as bleak and addictive as they come”, I wouldn’t call it a light read! But it’s definitely a page-turner.

The novel centres around Jude, a man who survived an unfathomably traumatic childhood and is trying to live a ‘normal’ life (whatever that looks like). Jude is adored by his friends, despite revealing very little about himself or his past. The novel is ultimately about friendship, but it’s also about family – it explores the relationship between grown children and their parents.

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Emerging from creative silence

Elizabeth Gilbert on creative living

Over a month ago I vowed to update this blog every week, as a way of honouring my own creativity and clearing time in my schedule for personal projects. I had every intention of sticking to this goal but then – well, life. I got busy. More changes appeared on the horizon. Other projects captured my attention. And I did what I often do during times of big change – I chose silence.

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I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

 

i-am-pilgrim-by-terry-hayes

“In war, the first casualty is truth.” – Terry Hayes, I Am Pilgrim.

One of my university friends is extremely well-read and we often email back and forth about our latest literary findings. I’m usually quietly impressed by the pace in which he devours lengthy philosophical tomes by exotic authors I’ve never heard of, while I slowly make my way through the Whitcoulls Top 100. We compare topics and make suggestions and recommendations, and it’s a great way to keep in touch – I’m not sure I could ever tire talking about books.

It was during one such conversation that I attempted to describe my feelings towards I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes.

“I can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it!”

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Last night I was in the same room as Haruki Murakami

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do. To dream, to live in the world of dreams. But it doesn’t last forever. Wakefulness always comes to take me back.” – Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Reading is an intensely personal experience. You take a book to a quiet corner and lose yourself between the pages of a story. Thousands, if not millions, of people might read the same words, but at that moment, they are yours and yours only.

Authors tend to have a mystical presence. As you read, you fall in love with characters and places, only vaguely aware of the person who wrote the words. It’s not until you finish the story that you see the puppet strings.

Occasionally, an author becomes a celebrated character in his or her own right. They transition from being mystical to being master, master of words and stories. You tentatively hang on to their every word, intrigued and in awe, but also ever-so-slightly mistrusting, as if with one admission they could crumble your interpretation of their works.

After all, the relationships you build with ‘their’ characters is intimate and personal. They provide the words, your imagination does the rest.

So what happens when you place a revered writer with a cult-like following in a room full of 2,000 avid readers?

Last night I was in the same room as Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors. The atmosphere was electric.

When Murakami walked on stage the crowd erupted in applause and wolf whistles. A few people raised from their seats in standing ovation. I had goosebumps and a goofy smile across my face. In that moment, I could feel what Murakami’s stories are to people: joy.

That was the feeling in the room. Joy. Along with admiration, respect, anticipation and all the rest. But joy was the feeling I felt most intensely throughout the 90 minutes Murakami spoke.

This experience solidified what I have always believed but struggled to put into words: stories bring so much happiness to people’s lives.

The applause lasted minutes, perhaps a few seconds longer than socially appropriate, and Murakami looked humbled, overwhelmed and also slightly amused. He sat down in a leather armchair, smiled patiently, and turned to his interviewer, John Freeman.

Freeman, a US author, editor & critic, did a masterful job of guiding the conversation. He was warm, funny and respectful, posing thoughtful questions to Murakami and giving him plenty of time and space to answer as he pleased.

I didn’t know what to expect – who can ever predict what turns a conversation is going to take? Murakami was sincere and generous in his answers, yet also incredibly funny and not the least bit shy of speaking his truth.

I could try to recap the entire conversation, but I know I wouldn’t do it justice. You really had to be there.

I walked away with more feelings than cold-hard-facts. I guess that’s what 90 minutes listening to a masterful storyteller leaves you with – a vague sense of direction and a few memorable one liners.

Here are three things I gleaned from A Conversation with Haruki Murakami:

Not everything requires an explanation

Although he was refreshingly candid and honest, Murakami did manage to maintain an air of mystery.

His books are notoriously left wide open to interpretation, leaving readers to speculate over the meaning of his every word. He gave nothing away, other to say that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen any more than the readers do (to which the crowd erupted in laughter).

He said he discovers his characters through writing. He is not one to map out every scene in detail and then put it into words. Instead, he goes on a journey with them, every day bringing forward a fresh revelation.

While it was clear many people in the audience were seeking some explanation (he is the King of cliffhangers), Murakami seemed content to leave his characters muddling their way through chaos. “That’s life,” he said.

I admired his refusal to give in to people’s pleas for clarification. I used to be one of them: when I finished Sputnik Sweetheart I wrote that I felt “disoriented and disappointed”. Next time, I am just going to enjoy the ride. Murakami’s fiction is not the place to search for concrete answers.

Stop Googling writing tips and just put pen to paper

As an aspiring writer, I thought I would feel intimidated by Murakami’s presence, but the opposite was true. If anything, I felt reassured.

Here is Murakami, a best-selling novelist with a God-like status in some literary circles, telling the audience that he’s just doing what he knows how to do. He climbed down from the pedestal people put him on and said, I can’t tell you how I do what I do. I just do.

Of course that question came: “What tips can you share with aspiring writers are trying to thrive in this hostile publishing environment? A mouthful to which he appeared to draw a blank.

I felt a little bit sorry for the girl in the audience who asked the question – she was obviously hoping for a more detailed response. But I admired the way he simplified the process. Just write. Just do what you know how to do, and see what happens.

There are no tips and tricks, no shortcuts to success, just you and your blank page.

Stories are stories: biography has little place in imagination

It is natural to speculate whether a writer’s stories are somewhat autobiographical. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Murakami was rather cautious when it came to answering questions about his own background.

It was almost as if he was saying, “what does it matter?” Of course his experiences will shape his stories, but his imagination is what inspires him to write.

“I can be anybody,” he said. He can be a young conservative man or a lonely 20-year-old lesbian. He said he simply tried to see the world through other people’s eyes.

To try to glean biographical insight from his every word is to discredit the Murakami’s perception and imagination. Sometimes a story is just a story, and we should leave it at that.

Haruki Murakami came to New Zealand as part of the Auckland Writers Festival. You can read more about him here.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel-Bring up the Bodies

“Where to begin with Cromwell? Some start with his sharp little eyes, some start with his hat. Some evade the issue and paint his seal and scissors, others pick out the turquoise ring given him by the cardinal. Wherever they begin, the final impact is the same: if he had a grievance against you, you wouldn’t like to meet him at the dark of the moon.” – Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies

It’s not often I enjoy the second book in a series better than the first. But Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel has left its predecessor Wolf Hall in the dust.

When I reviewed Wolf Hall in March, I confessed that it had “the tendency to put me to sleep” and that reading it “felt like running a marathon”. I encouraged people to read it if they were “up for a literary challenge” or had “an interest in Tudor history”. What a bland review!

Now I want to eat my words. Stop what you’re doing and read Wolf Hall. Persevere through the detailed descriptions and fight your way, one sleepy page at a time, to the end. Because Bring Up The Bodies is well worth the effort.

Synopsis

Picking up where Wolf Hall left off, Bring Up The Bodies starts in the depths of Thomas Cromwell’s mind. As readers, we are forever perched on the shoulder of this elusive Tudor lawyer, shown snippets of his brilliance and malice.

Setting the tone for the novel, the first chapter opens with ghosts and omens, as Cromwell rides through the English countryside, on yet another errand for King Henry VIII.

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.”

Here is he, Cromwell, cantering forward, with England “behind him”, his own wretched past a constant companion, no matter how much ground he covers. Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son, the Putney-born, now Master Secretary to the King of England.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history knows Cromwell does not have a happy ending. It makes for interesting reading then, to follow his life knowing what fate lies ahead. Each page is marred by a sense of foreboding, each word uttered tinged with risk. The roll of a dice, a high-stakes game where the rewards are dazzling and there are no second chances. But Cromwell knows no way but forward.

“The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.”

Bring Up The Bodies is set during the reign of Queen Anne Boleyn – or La Ana, the concubine, depending on which team you play for. Anne is one of history’s most famous figures. Like Cromwell, she is elusive, much of her character having evaded historians for centuries.

Historians have used much creative licence when depicting Anne. There has been much literature about her rise and fall. The majority of historical fiction from the Tudor period is filled with sex, romance and war – as if one has to ‘sex up’ history to make it interesting.

But Mantel chooses to portray Cromwell, the lawyer. It says a lot about Mantel’s commitment to character, that she manages to make Anne look dull and Cromwell dazzling. In her two books about the Tudors, there is barely any sex or battle, just words and whispers.

In doing this, I believe Mantel gets closer to the heart of Henry VIII’s reign. What happened during this period was not driven by romance or lust, but by law. Henry could not simply act as he pleased – all of his whims and desires had to be framed in legal terms. It was Cromwell’s task to legalise and justify his King’s demands.

“We are not priests. We don’t want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.”

There is nothing simple about the way Henry dismissed his wives. Behind the scenes was Cromwell, pulling the puzzle apart and piecing it together again. Bring Up The Bodies is a masterpiece of political brilliance and calculation. It’s offers unique insight into one of the most turbulent times of British history; I won’t bore you with the plot, it is already well-known. Instead this book is worth reading for its fresh perspective.

My thoughts

I was completely blown away by Bring Up The Bodies. The time Mantel put into building Cromwell’s character in Wolf Hall shows, as in Bring Up The Bodies he is as familiar as an old friend. You know his character and his ambition. You might not know what he is going to do next, but you have a fair idea of how he is going to do it; with deliberate precision and care. You find yourself respecting him, even if the outcome is bloodshed.

“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

The book makes it feel as though you, the reader, are Cromwell’s shadow. You follow him from the warmth of his home to the coolness of the court, and everywhere in between. Cromwell sees and hears everything, and therefore so do you. Mantel has managed to find a way of condensing the complexity of Henry VIII’s court into one man’s mind, and then opened a window so the world can look in.

When I finished Bring Up The Bodies I had goosebumps, a huge smile on my face and I think I may even have whooped with satisfaction. Well played, Mantel, well played.

Bookmarked Quotes

“But chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.”

“Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project

“But why, why, why can’t people just say what they mean?” – Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Project

One part romance, one part comedy, The Rosie Project will forever have a place in my heart as my first book club* read.

It was the perfect initial choice: light and funny, yet also deep enough to inspire a little discussion.

*I recently joined not just one, but TWO book clubs. My life feels complete. How many book clubs is too many? Wouldn’t say no to a third.

Synopsis

Meet Don Tillman, an eccentric genetics professor with undiagnosed (and unconfirmed) Asperger’s Syndrome. Intelligent and pragmatic, Don has the mind of a genius yet he struggles in social situations. He takes everything literally and therefore finds most people a source of mind-boggling confusion.

Don is the embodiment of the phrase ‘creature of habit’. He lives his life according to a very strict, self-devised schedule for success. Everything he does is carefully calculated to help him reach his full physical and mental potential, from the amount of sleep he gets every night to the type of food he eats. He’s incredibly fit, smart and healthy, but not that great at small talk or spontaneous fun.

Despite the odd pang of loneliness and the fear of social embarrassment, Don seems pretty happy with his life. He’s just missing one thing: romance. Never one to sit idly over a problem, Don devises a plan. Welcome to the Wife Project.

Armed with a sixteen-page questionnaire and some rather striking hypocritical tendencies, Don sets out on his search for the perfect woman. He hopes to use the questionnaire as a type of screening test, to eliminate any ‘unsuitable matches’ in the early stages, rather than get halfway down the road of love and find out Miss Perfect is actually a sports-watching, smoking disappointment.

“A questionnaire! Such an obvious solution. A purpose-built, scientifically valid instrument incorporating current best practice to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers, the crystal gazers, the horoscope readers, the fashion obsessives, the religious fanatics, the vegans, the sports watchers, the creationists, the smokers, the scientifically illiterate, the homeopaths, leaving ideally, the perfect partner, or, realistically, a management shortlist of candidates.”

This is where things start to get a little predictable. Who walks into his life but a beautiful, eccentric, chain-smoking vegetarian? Enter Rosie. As Don is about to find out, romance hardly ever goes to plan.

My thoughts

This book made me laugh, a lot. Mostly at Don, but also at the ridiculousness of some social norms that he highlights through his inability to read between the lines. And then there is the fact the author likes to squeeze as much laugh potential out of an awkward situation as possible. I think the below quote sums up what I mean pretty well:

Don: “But I’m not good at understanding what other people want.”
Rosie: “Tell me something I don’t know,” said Rosie for no obvious reason.
I quickly searched my mind for an interesting fact.
“Ahhh… The testicles of drone bees and wasp spiders explode during sex.”

Sometimes this humour was eye-rolling ridiculous, sometimes it was very clever & understated. All of the time, it was highly enjoyable. Speaking of reading between the lines, sometimes it’s nice to read a book for pure entertainment, without getting too caught up in the myriad possible meanings of every sentence.

I think you will enjoy The Rosie Project if you take it for what it is – a light and entertaining read. Or as the queen of chicklit herself, Marian Keyes, said: “funny and heartwarming, a gem of a book”.

This is a romance novel for those who do not like romance novels (thereby proving that everyone likes a nice love story every once in a while).

Bookmarked quotes

“Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.”

“It would be unreasonable to give you credit for being incredibly beautiful.”

“It seems hardly possible to analyse such a complex situation involving deceit and supposition of another person’s emotional response, and then prepare your own plausible lie, all while someone is waiting for you to reply to a question. Yet that is exactly what people expect you to be able to do.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer book review
“We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film.” – Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

I knew I was in for a ride when I picked up Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I have been aware of this book for some time, but had – until now – managed to push it right to the bottom of my ‘too-hard basket’.

Isn’t it strange when massive, universal, ethical questions randomly tap you on the shoulder and demand your attention? I have gone 24 years without sincerely worrying about the meat on my plate. Then one day, out of the blue, I felt ready to explore this issue further.

If you have ever felt any curiosity or concern about how meat is produced, then this book is an excellent place to start. Yes, it does push a vegetarian agenda, but it is not preachy or confrontational in the way you might expect from a book of this title. It simply lays some facts bare and lets you decide where you stand. Ultimately, this is a book about choice.

Synopsis

Factory farming, America, the mid to late 2000s. This is the context in which Eating Animals was written.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s mission is to expose some truths about factory farming, which – at the time of publication – was in some way or another part of the production process for 99% of all meat in the United States.

It’s easy to think about factory farming as something that happens elsewhere, but New Zealand isn’t exempt. Although set within the context of the United States, the issues raised in Eating Animals have global influence, especially considering the scale and power of some of the largest meat producers.

In other words, as tempting as it might be, don’t write-off Jonathan Safran Foer’s research just because you don’t live in America.

The premise for Eating Animals is simple: write about factory farming and eating animals. The results are much more complex. Discussions about what we eat – especially about meat – tend to either induce extreme emotions or extreme apathy. You either shrug your shoulders and take another bite of your burger, or you argue passionately for one side or the other.

“I can’t count the times that upon telling someone I am vegetarian, he or she responded by pointing out an inconsistency in my lifestyle or trying to find a flaw in an argument I never made. (I have often felt that my vegetarianism matters more to such people than it does to me).”

Jonathan Safran Foer explores people’s reactions and tries to shine some light on why a conversation about eating animals is so fraught, when most humans eat some form of meat every day.

The result is a powerful, thought-provoking book that provides you with the knowledge to make better informed decisions about where you spend your consumer dollar. That said, it may also have the side-effect of making you worry about food, a lot.

My thoughts

I didn’t so much as have thoughts about Eating Animals, rather I felt a powerful response – philosophically, morally, physically and emotionally.

I will spare you the details of just how bad factory farming is, and instead tell you how this book made me feel.

Whether I continue to eat animals or I choose a path of vegetarianism, this book led me to the following conclusion: I want to lead a gentle life.

I want to be gentle in the way I approach and treat others, and the way I approach and treat myself. I want to tread lightly on this earth and leave little destruction or waste in my wake. I want to prioritise compassion over indifference and awareness over ignorance. I want to carry myself with integrity and consideration.

Currently, factory farming is the antithesis of all these things.

Three questions I keep asking myself are: does eating animals align with my values, my ideal of who I wish to be? And do the animals on my plate require my compassion, or are they integral to my health and survival, and therefore exempt? And is it possible to be truly, authentically compassionate towards animals and still eat them?

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking about my interactions with animals. I thought about stroking a kitten, playing ball with a dog, looking into a cow’s eyes, or even picking up a chicken and feeling it’s warmth. Everything about my interaction with animals is gentle.

That said, I’ve never considered myself to be an ‘animal person’. I am almost a little bit afraid of them. During my childhood we had grumpy cats who were prone to scratching and biting, and I was terrified of dogs. I still cross to the other side of the street when I see a dog off a leash. Just a few weeks ago, I was afraid to pick up some baby chicks on my mum’s land.

I don’t believe this fear comes from a concern that they will actually hurt me, rather animals make me jumpy because I have no idea what they are going to do next. I regard them with caution and curiosity, and ultimately, as individuals. Until I get to know an animal better – pet or otherwise – I would rather observe them from afar.

Perhaps it is precisely because I have always kept animals at arm’s length that I haven’t worried about eating them – until now.

Listening to a news story about the use of antibiotics on factory farmed animals triggered an impulse in me to delve deeper, to learn more about how meat is produced. And a small part of me wishes I hadn’t opened this can of worms. Once you take a look under the lid, you can’t go back.

Of course I had a slight suspicion that the lives of factory farmed animals were difficult. But to have their suffering and death described to me in such detail, well, it made me question everything I believe in.

That reason alone is evidence enough that Jonathan Safran Foer has written a brilliant book.

Any piece of writing that forces you to reconsider your values, to think deeply about the world and your place in it, is – in my opinion – worth reading.

“In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.”

Sometimes I curse my thirst for knowledge – wouldn’t everything be so much easier if I remained ignorant to certain realities? Wouldn’t I be happier in the short-term if I refused to make connections between the meat on my plate and an animal?

But that’s not my nature.

My mind jumps from one to conclusion to the next, but it keeps coming back to that desire to know rather than not know. I would always prefer to be told than to be kept in the dark.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge also implies change and adaption. The more we learn, the better we can respond to changing circumstances, and the better we will be able to find solutions to problems.

As Maya Angelou famously said: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

As we acquire more knowledge we must be prepared to reassess and realign our journey through life.

This is the sentiment I will hold close to my heart as I continue to explore my relationship to food and to animals. I will continue doing the best I can with the knowledge I have in front of me, and try to make the best possible decisions.

And throughout this process, I will endeavour to be gentle, kind and compassionate.

Bookmarked quotes

“Ironically, the utterly unselective omnivore – ‘I’m easy; I’ll eat anything’ – can appear more socially sensitive than the individual who tries to eat in a way that is good for society.”

“Meat is bound up with the story of who we are and who we want to be, from the book of Genesis to the latest farm bill. It raises significant philosophical questions and is a $140 billion-plus a year industry that occupies nearly a third of the land on the planet, shapes ocean ecosystems, and may well determine the future of the earth’s climate.”

“Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.”

“Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world? Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon, or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.”

“My decision not to eat animals is necessary for me, but it is also limited – and personal. It is a commitment made within the context of my life, not anyone else’s.”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel Book Review

“Some of these things are true and some of them are lies. But they are all good stories.” – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

If you love a good literary challenge, add Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to your reading list.

Published in 2010 and winner of the Man Booker Prize, this piece of historical fiction is brilliantly crafted and extraordinarily well-researched.

That said, it did have the tendency to put me to sleep.

Hence why I referred to reading Wolf Hall as a challenge. Mantel’s masterpiece is too good to be light entertainment; you must prepare to engage your brain.

I was warned this mammoth 650-page tome would require some commitment to see through to the end. Many people have started Wolf Hall with good intentions, only to see it gathering dust on the bedside table.

I first heard about the book when I was listening to a BBC History Podcast. Peter Kominsky, the director of the television dramatization of Wolf Hall, was being interviewed. The BBC series sounds dark and dramatic, everything I look for in historical drama. I was hooked.

But I wouldn’t be a true bookworm if I watched the series before reading the book…

Synopsis

Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII’s England. It follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, a prominent lawyer from this period.

The novel opens during Cromwell’s childhood, to him being physically beaten by his volatile father, Walter. Cromwell grew up in Putney – very much the wrong side of the Thames in those days – and was the son of the town’s brewer and bully.

The story then leaps forward several years, to when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man. Cromwell’s adolescence, spent mostly abroad in Europe, is shrouded in mystery. Everyone wonders how this commoner rose to such prominence in Wolsey’s entourage.

“It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fantasies, fears and desires.”

Highly intelligent and intuitive, Cromwell continues to rise well above his rank and eventually becomes one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and most cherished friends.

But you know what they say about kings. “Kings have no friends, only subjects and enemies” (A Game of Thrones).

In his proximity to Henry, Cromwell is one of the most feared men in the kingdom, but his position is fragile. His success depends largely on the whims of one woman: Anne Boleyn.

Wolf Hall offers an extraordinary glimpse of Henry’s courtship with Anne through Cromwell’s eyes, painting the reader a different picture of this well-covered storyline.

Mantel does an excellent job of providing insight into Henry’s character, while at the same time bringing Cromwell – one of the most under-celebrated personalities of this period – to life.

My thoughts

Firstly, I am glad I consulted Goodreads before picking up Wolf Hall. I remain immensely grateful to the reviewer Teresa Tumminello Brader, who shared an incredibly useful tip for approaching the book.

“The thing to remember when starting this book is that 99% of the time the pronoun ‘he’ refers to Cromwell, even at times when the sentence structure makes it seem like ‘he’ would be someone else. It took me a short while to realize this, but once I did, I was fine.”

I think the use of ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell works very well. It creates an illusion of overhearing Cromwell’s thoughts. It almost feels like you are listening in on a conversation you shouldn’t be privy to.

The effect is the same when Cromwell is talking to other characters. The whole time I was reading, I felt like I was listening with a glass to a wall, or illicitly eavesdropping on a secret conversation. This was especially pronounced during Cromwell’s visits with Anne Boleyn.

Although confusing at first, I grew to appreciate this style. I feel it is perfect for historical fiction, where the line between reality and embellishment is always blurred. To tell the story using ‘I’ would be to assert Cromwell’s identity. Mantel’s use of ‘he’ leaves much more room for interpretation.

Nevertheless, you get a strong sense of Cromwell’s character – or at least how Mantel imagines him to be. He is equal parts cold and warm, remorseless and generous, calculating and spontaneous. At first men dismiss him, then they respect him, but at all times they are wary.

If Cromwell is your man, he will be loyal to the end. If he is not, you face an inexhaustible adversary.

“Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,” says Thomas More, “and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.”

I grew to admire and empathise with Cromwell, but even after 650 pages of reading his thoughts, I remained unsure as to what he would do next. I knew his eventual fate, which made observing his decisions feel bittersweet.

I expected the book to end when Cromwell’s life ended, but to my surprise I discovered there was a sequel upon finishing the last chapter. Reading Wolf Hall felt like running a marathon – I am drumming up energy to tackle Bring Up The Bodies.

Although tiresome in parts, and written with such dense prose that it often put me to sleep, I am glad I saw Wolf Hall through to the end. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Tudor history.

Bookmarked quotes

“He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.”

“Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not as if we had a choice.”

“You mustn’t stand about. Come home with me to dinner.”
“No.” More shakes his head. “I would rather be blown around on the river and go home hungry. If I could trust you only to put food in my mouth – but you will put words into it.”