In transit: the world’s edge

On Halloween we hit the road, in transit for several days, heading south. I’ve chosen Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (winner of the Booker prize) for my travel book, and I’m well pleased with my choice.

Before I say something about the novel, I’d like to say something about the production. This is the Canadian HarperCollins edition, and it’s gorgeous. The cover is textured and lush—I prefer it to both the U.K. and U.S. editions. It has French flaps, a lovely flexible binding, rough-cut pages. Sumptuous—as befits this story.

This is a very absorbing novel, and quite interesting from a craft perspective, as well. It’s written in a very close third person point of view (sometimes slipping into first, which can be a bit curious). It’s also written in the present tense, which I usually find annoying, but Mantel is a master and it succeeds beautifully. I love how the story skips along without very much explanation, leaving me curious. The details are spare, fresh, stunning.

This introduction to the Duke of Norfolk is simply brilliant:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an axe head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jewelled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs’ bones.

The dialogue is straightforward, without historic flourishes. Overall, one feels very present in a time and place. This is historical fiction at its best.

Here’s a lovely Halloween passage:

Halloween: the world’s edge seeps and bleeds. This is the time when the tally-keepers of Purgatory, its clerks and gaolers, listen in to the living, who are praying for the dead.

Thomas Cromwell, the main character, has recently lost a wife and two daughters to the plague.

All Hallows Day: grief comes in waves. Now it threatens to capsize him. He doesn’t believe that the dead come back; but that doesn’t stop him from feeling the brush of their fingertips, wing-tips, against his shoulder.

All Hallows Day is November 1st. We will arrive in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on the 2nd: El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It’s a beautiful tradition—not grim at all—honoring those who are no longer with us. I’ll be thinking of many loved ones, but especially of my mother, who shared a passion for reading and who would have loved this novel.

On getting the facts right


Hilary Mantel‘s article in the Guardian on finishing a historical novel and getting the facts right is delightful. Just a taste:

“There’s a certain kind of reader (they pop up at readings and festivals) who worries about the ethics of historical fiction, feels vaguely guilty about reading it, and would like the author to make it clear just which bits are made up, perhaps by printing them in red ink. Some fine authors hardly care about accuracy. I heard Penelope Fitzgerald say that she did her research after a book, not before. Didn’t she get angry letters, asked a shocked member of the audience? Oh yes, she said, smiling. They tell me about the birds in the trees, she said; in no way could the hero, in such a place, in such a year, have seen or heard a collared dove! She had a certain way of smiling, which suggested a mind above ornithology, an imagination licensed for its own flights.”