Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “Historical Fiction”

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

So, I’m really into historical fiction now. Yeah, that’s a thing. I liked Wolf Hall a lot, although I found the prose a bit frustrating at times and the pacing a little off, it was nonetheless a supremely enjoyable book. The sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, improves on Wolf Hall in almost every regard, with irritating writing tics smoothed over and a tighter narrative.

Where Wolf Hall was, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, mainly the story of the rise of Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies is the story of her downfall and the rise of Jane Seymour. Thomas Cromwell is at the peak of his power, with the title of Lord Chancellor of England, his common roots still earn him mockery and plenty of enemies. An increasingly capricious and deluded Henry VIII has fallen for Jane Seymour, an inscrutable and plain young woman and, just as he had before with Katherine, he sets Cromwell to search for a way out of his marriage.

Where Wolf Hall was a bit listless in it’s pacing, Bring Up the Bodies is a tighter, leaner novel with a stronger focus. We all know that Cromwell isn’t going to be able to negotiate a bloodless end for Anne, but the manner of her death is still shocking. Everything in the novel is racing towards it’s inevitable conclusion, with almost every element of the story somehow tying into the eventual beheading. Although Cromwell is a maligned figure in history, we didn’t really get to see much of why in Wolf Hall, but Bring Up the Bodies begins to explore the darker side of Cromwell, suggesting that he is a man with a long term plan who counts the names of all who have wronged him.

The pronoun problem of the previous book is remedied in slightly clunky, but undeniably effective fashion. Now, I looked online and some people liked the confusing use of the word ‘he’ in Wolf Hall, arguing that it reinforced that this is Cromwell’s story. Whilst I appreciate that this likely was a stylistic choice rather than poor writing and see Mantel’s reasoning for doing so, the simple fact was that it made the book less enjoyable to read and now Mantel frequently says ‘he, Cromwell’ when describing an action. It’s a tiny change but one I noticed immediately and made lengthy scenes of dialogue much less frustrating.

As I mentioned earlier, further facets of Cromwell are revealed, but he remains a sympathetic and enjoyable protagonist. Whether the real Thomas Cromwell was like this I don’t know, but nor do I really care. Anne Boleyn is a fascinating figure, loathsome in some ways but difficult not to feel some sympathy for later on. Henry devolves further, with a favourite moment being where he writes a tragic play about his own life and then reads it to himself. Utterly delusional and repulsive, Mantel gives a fascinating insight into a historical figure known primarily in caricature.

I can proudly join the hordes thronging for the final book in the trilogy, with Bring Up the Bodies leaving me completely sold. Historical accuracy doesn’t matter; I don’t care if the real Thomas Cromwell was the monster history has painted to be or if Thomas More was a principled martyr. At the end of the day, I like this story and I can’t wait to see how we get to the inevitable grisly end.

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is in my top five all-time favourite books. I also really liked Ghostwritten, so I don’t know why I took so long to delve into David Mitchell’s other works. I suppose I liked the science fiction elements in those two novels and was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy his books so much without them; I still like the Iain M. Banks sci-fi more than the Iain Banks mainstream fiction. I was wrong to leave it so long; I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and am now energised to make my way through Mitchell’s back catalogue.

This novel takes place as the 18th century turns into the 19th, primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. The Dutch have sole trading rights with the isolationist Empire of Japan and Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk who has travelled to Dejima to make some money before returning to his home in the Netherlands to marry his sweetheart Anna. In Dejima he meets Orito, a scarred yet alluring young midwife, who is being controversially trained in the art of medicine by the enigmatic Doctor Marinus. Taking place over decades, Jacob eventually discovers a dark secret at the heart of the local Japanese power yet in his position is powerless to do anything about it.

Despite taking place primarily in one very small location, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet feels like an epic. As I’ve been finding a lot with historical fantasy lately, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tickled my fantasy bone. What Mitchell captures so wonderfully is just how mysterious and enigmatic a challenge Japan presented to the colonialist view of the East. English and Dutch attitudes to non-white people are made very clear in this novel through some truly nauseating treatment of African slaves and they speak with regular dripping content for Asian people as well. The English and Dutch were fairly used to conquering outside Europe with impunity, until they come to Japan and find a formidable nation that wants very little to do with them and could repel them without too much difficulty. Mitchell manages a fine balance between preserving a sense of mystery in Japan while avoiding the suspect Orientalist simplistic depiction of the East as a magical fantasy for Western consumption. There’s a strong element of magic realism in the whole thing, with Mitchell throwing a few very subtle hints our way that his universe isn’t necessarily one of purely rational science and that forces and energies exist outside our understanding. Mitchell is brilliant at confounding expectations about what a ‘mainstream’ novel should contain. I mean, one of Ghostwritten’s protagonists was an ancient incorporeal being. How cool is that? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet isn’t as brazen as that, but it’s possibly cleverer, managing that fine trick of managing to make a story feel both intimate and epic. This is my favourite way to construct a story and Mitchell does it with aplomb.

Another element of Mitchell’s writing I love is his willingness to vary tone and master a variety of styles. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet had some seriously moving moments, some moments or pure tension and yes, some laugh out loud comedy. Again, he does this in a less obvious way than the fractured narratives of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but this marvellously successful attempt at being a literary jack-of-all-trades is probably my favourite thing about Mitchell’s writing. There’s a description of Nagasaki towards the end that slips into poetry, but it didn’t feel jarring or pretentious, it just felt right, perfectly pitched.

Jacob de Zoet is a protagonist that it’s hard not to root for and he’s surrounded by an interesting and likeable cast. My favourite was the plain spoken Chief van Cleef of the Dutch trading mission; I enjoyed his lack of pretention and straight talking, with the Japanese characters also being well developed. The sinister Abbot Enomoto is a great character and Orito is an excellent love interest.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet moved, amused and entertained me more than I was perhaps expecting. For some reason I’d had it in my head that Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were flukes; I’m happy to be proven wrong. I think I have another author whose back catalogue I’m going to obsessively consume! Hooray!thousandautumns-horizontal

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I am shamefully, shamefully, ignorant when it comes to British history. I always preferred the American stuff, probably because there’s less of it. I therefore approached Wolf Hall as an opportunity to educate myself. Although obviously not fantasy, if you’re a fan of political and backstabby books like Game of Thrones, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall tells the relatively unfamiliar tale of Thomas Cromwell, eventual great-great grand uncle to Oliver, but we won’t hold that against him. Cromwell was a man rather maligned at the time, a commoner who schemed his way to the top to gain the ear of King Henry VIII. He was viewed as a ruthless and callous man to be feared, but Mantel presents a much more sympathetic figure in Wolf Hall. The novel begins with Cromwell as an aide to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who emerges from Wolsey’s downfall to become one of the most powerful men in England. With Henry seeking divorce from Queen Katherine to marry the seductive and manipulative Anne Boleyn, Wolf Hall follows the early days of the Reformation and the founding of the Church of England.

Through my ignorance, I was perhaps able to enjoy Wolf Hall in a different way to many. I might as well have been reading fiction to be honest; I may be aware of who Thomas More was, I even read Utopia at university for crying out loud, but I had no idea of his eventual fate. I enjoyed Wolf Hall the same way I enjoy fantasy, as an escape into a world utterly unlike my own. It took me a while, but Wolf Hall eventually got its hooks into me.

One of the barriers to entry is the sometimes frustrating difficulty in telling who is talking; when I realised that ‘he’ almost always referred to Cromwell with everyone else called by their names it became a bit easier, but it’s still a bit odd. Either the writing got better as it went on or I grew to appreciate it more, but it doesn’t really matter. By the end Mantel had me eating out of her hand, with sharp and sometimes funny writing contrasting with tragedy without feeling mawkish. Some of Cromwell’s ruminations, which could have been dull and self-indulgent, are genuinely captivating to read. Mantel’s style is slightly odd and I couldn’t really tell you why; I’ll only say to persevere and hopefully it’ll click for you as it did for me.

Cromwell is the best kind of protagonist; funny, arch and sympathetic whilst remaining mysterious. Not much is known about the past of the real Thomas Cromwell, only really that he was a commoner born to a blacksmith in Putney. His time as a mercenary and soldier in Europe is less known and Mantel appropriately preserves that mystery rather than trying to create a fictional account of Cromwell’s exploits. He’s a character I could follow around for a long time and thankfully will in the sequels! The supporting cast are interesting as well, from the torturing and hypocritical Thomas More to the dedicated but self-obsessed Cardinal Wolsey through to the seductive and brittle Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII emerges as an interesting figure, with a genuine interest in doing the right thing clouded by layers of self-delusion. I was always shocked when I remembered that these were real people, I grew so interested in her well drawn characters.

Wolf Hall is a book with huge cross genre appeal and I recommend it to other fantasy fans. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel Bringing Up the Bodies and then watching the BBC adaption of both!4.-Wolf-Hall

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

English Passengers is a historical novel, containing no elements of science fiction or fantasy. Great writers of fantasy and sci-fi such as Isaac Asimov and Steven Erikson have observed the close connection between historical literature and fantasy, and it is certainly true that really great historical fiction can trigger the same vibe as genre fiction, and this novel certainly felt that way at times. This novel excels in its ability to balance the making of sincere and important observations about English colonialism whilst also retaining a wonderful air of fun silliness. This is a hard balancing act to maintain, and Kneale succeeds with aplomb in English Passengers.

English Passengers tells the story of an expedition to Tasmania in 1857, led by the foolish ninny Rev Geoffrey Wilson, who has become convinced that the island in the location of the Garden of Eden. WIlson is accompanied by Renshaw, an idle botanist and Dr. Potter, a racial theorist obsessed with categorising and ranking the different races of man (he unsurprisingly places the Anglo-Saxon English as the greatest race.) To arrive at their destination, they charter a ship of sailors from the Isle of Mann, led by a Captain Illiam Kewley. Unbeknownst to them, the Manx sailors are in fact smugglers with a hidden cargo hold filled with illicit goods. A parallel storyline takes place decades earlier, starting in 1820. This storyline primarily deals with the tale of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, the mixed race child of the rape of an Aboriginal woman by a white escaped convict. The separate narratives begin to intersect as the novel goes on, with the disparate strands of the narrative coming together nicely.

The structure of the novel reminded me, oddly enough, of George R.R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. At the beginning of each section is the name of a character, and it follows that character for that section. There are around twenty POVs in the entire novel, but many are just for a single chapter, with the majority of the novel coming from the POVs of Wilson, Kewley and Peevay. Kneale takes this structure one step further than Martin, by placing each POV in the first person. This leads to one of the most impressive triumphs of the novel, the varied and interesting narrative styles adopted by each character. The most striking is that of the Aborigine Peevay, who uses English in a fascinating and interesting way, it not naturally being his first language. Kneale does an excellent job of undermining preconceptions about Aborigines; Peevay is, in his odd way, a much more intelligent and eloquent protagonist than the self righteous Reverend Wilson and the entertainingly blunt and pragmatic Captain Kewley.

This is fundamentally a novel about colonialism, with the central Garden of Eden narrative being little more than a pretence to visit Tasmania and to witness the horrific crimes visited upon the native Aborigines by the white settlers. Kneale’s outrage pours through with a biting potency, particularly in analysis of the avowed racist Dr. Potter. Kneale argues that, at the beginning part of the 19th century, colonialism was (flimsily) justified as the spreading of God and civilisation to those unfortunate enough to lack it. There was no inherent suggestion that non-white races were inferior, merely that their cultures were inferior, and that with sufficient education they could be raised to the level of culture seen in white civilisations. Although this is of course a ridiculous concept, and one which caused immeasurable harm to countless societies, it was not strictly speaking ‘racism’ in the sense that we know it, but more a puffed up sense of cultural and moral superiority. Kneale suggests that, around the middle part of the century, this view began to shift with several major publications suggesting that certain races are inherently superior to others, and that they will inevitably clash. These writers were said to have been major influences upon the ideology of Adolf Hitler, and it’s not difficult to see how. Although post-colonial fiction is certainly nothing new, Kneale takes a look at one of the many crimes of the British Empire which has been somewhat less explored than those that were committed in Africa, mainland Australia and North America.

Of course, this novel is far from a dry humourless exploration of human cruelty, but also a wonderful collection of incredibly amusing character portraits. The Manx smugglers in particularly provide some genuinely hilarious moments, constantly underestimated by their haughty English passengers, yet almost always holding the upper hand. If there’s one thing which Kneale clearly finds incredibly amusing it is self delusion. The first person narratives mean that each character usually views themselves as entirely justified and moral figures, with all those who conflict with them being in the wrong. People see themselves in a very different light to how others see them, and it never failed to amuse to shift from the POV of the pious Reverent Wilson to the irreverent irritated patience of Captain Kewley, who sees him as nothing more than a self righteous fool. This is exactly how a novel should be; I’m of the firm belief that a novel devoid of humour is a novel which fails, even when dealing with a serious and brutal subject such as this.

This is probably the best historical novel I have ever read, and certainly the most fun. Although this novel serves a serious moral purpose, it never sacrifices the readers enjoyment to convey this purpose, with the many moments of levity serving to throw the indignities and cruelty inherent in colonialism into sharp relief. 

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