Cooper’s London

by Mel Cooper

Decrying Wolf, A Touch of Glass

Once again I cannot work out how the Man Booker Prize was given. Lots of people think that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a brilliant reconstruction of the life of Thomas Cromwell (about which remarkably little is actually known). I certainly liked the opening chapter where Mantel imagines Cromwell’s brutalized childhood. But after that, for me the book does not hold together. I found it ridiculously anachronistic in its attributions of thought to its characters, and I cannot stand the style.

Firstly, the persistent use of the historic present alienates my ability to get into the flow of the tale (which, for many people, seems to be a Brechtian device that they admire); and the trick of having nothing for personal pronouns to refer back to (so that you have to puzzle out which character is in focus for whole sentences at a time) is a consistent irritant. Also, the story simply stops in the middle, so I am assuming it is setting up a sequel.

I know I’m in the minority, but by the end I hated it and thought it was meretricious. For a more enlightening and a better reading experience, try Robert Hutchinson’s Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister. Or read a good book about Henry VIII, or Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent Thomas Cramner: A Life. Mantel seems to enter less into the minds, experiences, and specifics of Tudor England than either of these historians, and I found her story-telling confusing, choppy and seriously resistible.

Frankly, I expected one of the other nominees to win this year’s Booker Prize. To be truthful, any of them would have been preferable. But I have a soft spot for one of the novels in particular: The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer. The book is well-written, beautifully layered, and tells a touching story. Using a Bauhaus-style private home built in a mythical Czech city in 1929 (or Mies’ Villa Tughendat, whichever you prefer) as a central symbol and focus for considering the history of Central Europe in the 20th Century, The Glass Room reveals the lives and experiences of the people who built it, as well as the story of the house itself after they had to flee; how it was taken over first by the Nazis as a centre for genetic experimentation, and then by the Communists. The characters are interesting and well-drawn, their emblematic roles are not forced or made heavy, and the house (especially the eponymous glass room) is alive in one’s mind. The way history rolls over the story is completely believable and thought-provoking. Bonus: those who know about 20th-century art and architecture will be able to work out their own real-life references.

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