Friday, July 20, 2012

Why Hilary Mantel's books aren't historical fiction at all

What I like about historical novels is the feeling of god-like superiority that comes from knowing things that the characters don't yet know. I've just come from reading Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, set in the slave trade of the 18th century, and Ian Pears' An Instance Of The Fingerpost which is wrapped up in the scientific discoveries of the late 17th, to Hilary Mantel's chest-thumping Bring Up The Bodies, which is all about Thomas Cromwell and Ann Boleyn.

In the first two books you feel your knowledge of the way things turned out might give you an advantage over the key characters. Not so Thomas Cromwell. The character in Mantel's book has burrowed so far into the hearts of men that, even with the advantage of a further 500 years of history, you suspect you really couldn't tell him anything at all.


  1. the thing about Ian Pear's book is that although it is good, it is difficult to appreciate the subtleties of the different accounts in books that retell the same story from different angles.

  2. As a New Yorker reader, I guess you've read this superb review by James Wood -

    Mantel's two most recent novels, "make the stories fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk"

    I love the way that they're written in a present tense - things happen and Cromwell considers many options before acting - this calculation of cause and effect gives such immediacy to the novel.