* Lew’s (not so favorable) review of Wolf Hall

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 19, 2013

wolf Hall

I just started Wolf Hall, and I find the relentless use of “he” to be extremely irritating. In the first several chapters, there are dozens of instances where it is not clear who is speaking. Every once in a while, as if recognizing the problem she has created, Mantel uses the phrase “he, Cromwell.” Why not just say Cromwell?

Unless there is some good reason which I can’t imagine, this sort of obfuscation is just lazy writing which disrespects the reader. May I re-think that, based on a comment by another reader. It’s not lazy writing. It’s very purposeful. And very distracting.

… later … 

I just read some of the amazon reviews. There are actually quite a few readers who found the “he” business as disconcerting as I did, and who expressed their displeasure in rather strong terms, along with many *-star ratings. However, many others really liked the book, as do many Goodreads readers, so it must not bother them as it does me. 

Another Goodreads reader suggested that the use of “he” all the time created a closer intimacy with Cromwell. Perhaps, but I see it differently. If you want to create intimacy, use the first person. Then it is clear that everything is seen and felt by the single protagonist, and the reader can share that character’s viewpoint, thoughts and feelings. What Mantel has done is not to bring us close to Cromwell, but to inject herself, the author, between the reader and the prime character. She does this on practically every page and I find it jarring every time it happens.

Before my final negative notes, let me say that Mantel clearly has an exquisite command of the language. Even in the few chapters I read, her elegant choice of words often made me reflect and smile. She can paint a picture when describing a character or a setting that is truly wonderful. And, when she chooses to do so, she writes a vivid scene that has power and emotion.

Such continuity of story, however, is the exception rather than the rule. The constant switching of time and place, often without the merest hint of transition, made the reading much more difficult than it had to be. Just a word here or there would have made a huge difference.

Finally, the breezy style in which much of the book is written is entertaining, as many have noted and I agree, but it had the effect of making me wonder if Mantel was as true to the history as I think a historical fiction should be. Of course the dialogue and many of the personal incidents are made up, but does the author, when portraying actual events, present them accurately? I think such concern for the truth is an obligation of an author when writing about historical characters and events. Mantel left me unsure.

I think I’ve had enough of Wolf Hall, and perhaps other Goodreads readers have had enough of my criticism of what is surely a popular book. I don’t usually write negative opinions, but this book just seemed to drag them out of me. I hope I have not offended anyone.


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