I read these two large books back to back: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. One of the few things they have in common is that they’re both shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. One is an exploration of Tudor politics through the eyes of one of the major players, Thomas Cromwell. The other follows a well-known writer and her family through the end of the 19th century into the 20th. Both novels involve a complex cast of characters.
I read Wolf Hall first. It took me a while to get into it, but once there, I couldn’t put it down. Even though we know what’s going to happen historically, the inner life of Thomas Cromwell drew me into the events in a way I never expected. Usually portrayed as a sympathetic figure, Mantel’s Thomas More seems more life like. He’s a pompous jerk. Mantel’s Cromwell, while always likeable, is a fully fleshed out character. His heartbreak over the loss of his family to disease was heart wrenching. Cromwell came to prominence through will-power, not family connections. He’s an outsider, constantly taunted by the noblemen for his shabby beginnings. I’m not sure what other novels to compare. Mantel has written something entirely different, historical, imaginative, and simply wonderful.
I dove right into The Children’s Book. It’s quite easy to do. Byatt recreates the years between 1895 and 1919 so passionately and with such detail, that a friend also reading this book, wrote out a cast of characters for us to make it easier. She weaves together the fictional people seamlessly with historical figures such as Oscar Wilde, Rupert Brooke, and Emma Goldman.We begin with Olive Wellwood and her husband Humphrey. She is a well-known children’s book writer, he a banker. As part of the Fabian society, they’re inclined toward equality for all, which includes treating their children as equals. There’s also Humphrey’s brother Basil and his wife Katharina, who don’t share their socialist beliefs, and their children. The social circle arcs out to include some writers, artists and radical academics. The entire novel brims with the arts–theater, pottery, the Arts & Craft movement, painting, poetry, etc. The last third of the novel deals with World War I, the rude awakening to the upper class English. Many of the people you’ve read about die. Byatt was quite ruthless with that, but she had to be I imagine.
I cannot compare these two magisterial novels. I urge people not to let their size intimidate them. They’re two of the best books I’ve read so far this year. With more time to reflect, I imagine they’ll take their place in my favorite top 20 books ever.