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Wolf Hall is the home of Jane Seymour and Hilary Mantel's marvellous new novel is set in Tudor England. This sits oddly well with her distinctive talents. "The past is another country" and Hilary Mantel's fiction thrives in strange lands.

Her novels tread the quicksands on the borders between the explored and the unknown, the stated and the incommunicable. She is brilliant at describing the disorientation of exile, whether in Saudi Arabia or Africa. She is fascinated by the edges of that undiscovered country from whose bourne travellers are, in her fiction, all too apt to return: Fludd begins with the raising of Lazarus, and some singularly unpleasant manifestations have a return ticket in Beyond Black. And her autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, explores the border between past and present.

Her first fiction, A Place of Greater Safety, was another enormous and enormously well-researched historical novel, set in the French Revolution. It was rejected by publishers. One can see why. Though it is a work of disconcerting genius, it is as strange an historical novel as Giving Up the Ghost is a peculiar autobiography. Each denies the reader the sentimental satisfactions of retrospection - the safe gap between past and present that allows unthreatening nostalgia and the fulfilment of serene understanding.

A Place of Greater Safety was set when places of safety (and even times for safe retrospection or self-knowledge) prove infinitely fragile. Even character seems strung in moments of scattered insight across a violent and chaotic void. Wolf Hall turns to an English revolution: the years when Henry VIII broke with Rome.

Mantel's choice of hero in these turbulent times is wonderfully unexpected: not, as one might expect from the title, Jane Seymour, but the arch-fixer Thomas Cromwell. As Mantel presents him, he is both solid and fleeting - both well-fleshed and characterised, and convincingly unknowable.

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June 24th, 2009
8:06 PM
That was a good insight and greatly written. Had a good times reading it through. Bookmarked it for later use. -jo

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