Recommended summer reading: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

Today’s summer reading recommendation comes from Corinne McKay, an ATA-certified French to English translator based in Boulder, Colorado and specializing in international development, legal and corporate communications translations and non-fiction books. You might already know her from her blog (now a book), Thoughts on Translation.

First, a confession: the major casualty of my career as a translator has been my lifelong love of reading. After reading and writing for work all day, I’m just overloaded with words, and I’d usually rather work in my garden, play a musical instrument or do yoga than look at another printed word. Unless I’m on vacation, the longest thing I generally read without getting paid for it is the New Yorker, and it takes me several evenings to get through those.

Oh, and one more thing: I hate fiction. There are so many interesting true stories out there…who needs the fake ones? Within the world of fiction, I have a particularly low tolerance for epic historical novels. Anything with a directory of characters and a timeline of events is something I don’t have the attention span for; just give me back my New Yorker already.

So, when I tell you that I am obsessed-nothing short of obsessed—with Hilary Mantel’s epic historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and I’m considering camping out at her house until she finishes the next in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, I mean that you need to read them right this red-hot second if you haven’t read them already.

Wolf Hall book cover

General plot line: England under Henry VIII, from Henry’s breakup with Katherine of Aragon through his marriage to Anne of Cleves, told from the point of view of Henry’s lawyer, Master Secretary and confidant, Thomas Cromwell. You’ve heard the story before, but never (never!) like this, because Hilary Mantel’s writing will leave you gasping for breath, even though you know how the thing ends. Here’s an example: while listening to the audio book of Bring Up the Bodies with my family during a road trip to Utah, we got to the section where Henry is knocked unconscious in a jousting contest, and for about 20 minutes everyone thinks he’s dead. I was driving, and I literally shouted at the narrator, “He’s not dead! Check for a heartbeat! He hasn’t even beheaded Anne Boleyn and married Jane Seymour!” See what I mean?

The obsession started when I heard Hilary Mantel interviewed on the NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She, Mantel, was everything I expected an epic historical novelist not to be. Dark, witty, self-deprecating, a little raunchy, a little anti-literary-establishment; joking that when she won the Booker prize for the second time (the only woman ever to do so, and there’s still another book to come in the trilogy!), she spent the money on “sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

She had me; I checked the audio version of Bring Up the Bodies out of the library, and my family listened through the entire 12 hour roundtrip drive to Utah and back. Then my husband and I had to take shifts finishing the print version (“You had it last night…give it to me and go wash the dishes”) and considered buying two copies of Wolf Hall to avert marital discord. We read/listened to the books in reverse order, which has its pluses and minuses. Plus: you don’t get that attached to your favorite characters—as a lute player, I developed a particular soft spot for the sweet and naïve lutenist Mark Smeaton—because most of them get executed or die of “the sweating sickness” in book two.

Bring up the Bodies book cover

Hilary Mantel has really converted me; I’ve come to realize that it takes a special skill to write a breathtakingly gripping book about a story that everyone already knows. I now feel like I understand this historical period, and thus the underpinnings of modern Europe, much more fully. It’s also been fascinating to learn the “stories behind the story,” and my husband and daughter and I have spent hours poring over Wikipedia entries about the characters in Mantel’s books. Did the Archbishop of Canterbury really have a secret wife?(Totally) Did people really call the newborn Princess Elizabeth “the ginger pig,” due to her red hair and homely appearance? (Likely) Was Henry VIII possibly the father of Anne Boleyn’s sister’s son Henry? (Yes…yikes!) And what was “the sweating sickness” anyway? (Probably a form of hanta virus) So thank you, Ms. Mantel, and if you see someone lurking outside your office window with binoculars, peering at the text of The Mirror and the Light (due out in 2015…but exactly when in 2015???) on your computer, it’s me!


3 thoughts on “Recommended summer reading: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

  1. Pingback: Links you might enjoy | Thoughts On Translation

  2. Pingback: Weekly favorites (June 27 - July 3) | Lingua Greca Translations

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