by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. TaleseBuy at Powell’s »
April 5, 2010
Jessica Francis Kane: On the question of historical fiction, already much discussed, I fall on the reluctant side. I must be wooed, the more sly or oblique the subject matter, the better, and even then I like it on the short side and not packed with details. That the Championship match came down to these twoboth doorstops, one a Tudor court thriller, the other a roaming epic journey with lots of famous charactersseemed at first to promise nothing but torment.
But then I started reading and saw that the torment would be contained in only one of them. I’ve been thinking for days how best to describe the difference between these two historical fictions, and then it hit me: the first sentences! They represent everything I felt about the books.
In the beginning were the howlers.
‘So now get up.’
In The Lacuna, I was told the story of Harrison Shepherd, an unloved boy who lives through interesting times. As has been previously noted, Kingsolver uses many devices: diary entries, editorial notes, letters, and newspaper reports. But isn’t a good novel supposed to synthesize everything into a seamless story? I felt like I was doing all the work. The book seemed bumpy and constructed; I couldn’t stop skimming and jumping ahead, losing patience with the writing for many of the same reasons Sam Anderson illuminated in the last round. I was never, ever able to forget that I was reading. In the beginning were the howlers. I would argue that if a book needs multiple typefaces, either the writer hasn’t done her job or the reader isn’t being trusted. The Lacuna distinguishes itself, actually, by having both problems.
In Wolf Hall, I lived the life of Thomas Cromwell. I appreciated the present tense and the fact that there wasn’t a single forced plot or typographic device in sight. ‘So now get up,’ Cromwell’s father’s words as he kicks his son to the ground. I certainly woke up from my historical fiction malaise. That opening scene is astonishing. It beat me into forgetting that I was reading about Thomas Cromwell, important historical figure. He was just a young man whose father was viciously hurting him. He had my allegiance, ever after. And he had my heart whenever he later remembered something from his past, such as his wife’s words when she first sees the boy they will take into their household and raise as a son, Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog? Cromwell loved Liz, she died, and so close is the narration Mantel achieves, we know how it hurts him every time he remembers her. In other words, we understand the mythology of his lifewithout a single diary entry. How the hell did she do it? I have no idea, but Wolf Hall deserves the Rooster.
With all the judges weighing in at this point, I’m hoping I will just lead the tide of opinion toward Wolf Hall. On the other hand, if the judges are equally divided, I am, apparently, the tiebreaker. I didn’t think I had it in me, but I’ve been practicing a Cheney-esque snarl.
Jessica Francis Kane is a contributing writer for TMN. Her first novel, The Report, will be published in September 2010 by Graywolf. Known connections to this year’s contenders: Hilary Mantel blurbed my short story collection in 2003.
Rosecrans Baldwin: The Lacuna tells a story six million ways, and I never got close to any of them. So much frillery. Newspaper accounts pile up but don’t convince, and correspondences sound fabricated. Too bad, because some sections are riveting. Whereas nothing is riveting in Wolf Hall, or, tons of scenes are, but they lack colorit’s one long gray. It’s like watching pornography with Henry Kissinger: The monotone play-by-play in your ear kills anything sexy. But at least it wasn’t exasperating.
Andrew Womack: As much as I loved how Wolf Hall was told, I could never bring myself to care about its plot or charactersthere are too many foregone conclusions. Though implausible and sometimes hokey, The Lacuna at least kept me wondering how (in every sense) the story would unfold next.
Alexander Chee: These were two novels that were perhaps finally in the same weight classmajor works by seasoned authors who had done ample research and were intent on virtuoso performances. Their tasks were very different, though, for all of that. Wolf Hall sought to give us a new look at something we feel we know well. The Lacuna meant to show us a life we’d never know otherwise.
Wolf Hall did not begin auspiciouslywhen I opened the book to the ladders of family trees and the program of names, I was overwhelmed with minutiae I didn’t know how to care about yet, and flashed back to the 450-page science fiction and fantasy novels I read that began with similar lists and family trees that I ignored, resenting the idea they were needed. By the time I got to the opening scene of a young Thomas Cromwell being beaten to a bloody pulp by his dad, I was impatient, because I now felt the need to turn back to that list of characters and place him. I did.
Thomas Cromwell, check. Too much more of this, I thought, and it’s curtains.
When I open a novel, I want to just be taken insideI don’t want to be handed a program. And once I did get inside, I did immediately connect to the characters, if not the story. And it is a brilliant ride, even if I felt a little like I was looking at my windshield-mounted GPS as I drove. You can feel the pleasure Hilary Mantel feels in her subject coming off the page. That is a rare experience.
The Lacuna, meanwhile, handles itself without a program guide, and as much as I enjoyed myself with Wolf Hall, and it is brilliantly written and a thrilling yarn, I found myself more moved by the situation of The Lacuna. For, however these things begin, it is how they end, I think, that matters, and the razzle-dazzle, as Jane Ciabattari put it, that closes The Lacuna, beat, for me, Wolf Hall.
Nic Brown: Wolf Hall creates this weird and electric intersection of historical drama and compressed modern prose that keeps the language fresh, disjointed, and angular. I was excited by it. But The Lacuna was like some fever dream I didn’t want to get out of. I connected to it viscerally in a way I never did with Wolf Hall. The difference for me was this: I read Wolf Hall like an assignment, and The Lacuna because I couldn’t stop.
David Gutowski: Both Wolf Hall and The Lacuna are impressive books. Hilary Mantel and Barbara Kingsolver have crafted two historical novels of epic proportions, but if pushed, I would have to admit to being more mesmerized by Wolf Hall. Mantel’s depiction of 16th-century England drew me into the tale totally, while at times Kingsolver’s novel seemed populated by improbable (to my mind, at least) intersections with historical events.
Molly Young: I like masterful books as much as the next reader, but there’s a limit to my discipline. Wolf Hall is everything you’ve heard it to be, but I did not ultimately want to pick up the book as much as I wanted to put it down. The Lacuna, on the other hand, is a novel of subtle and tender might. Kingsolver’s narrator is a man whose mind you want to melt into, and her opus wields its history with a lighter touch. It is heartbreaking in every way a novel should be.
C. Max Magee: Wolf Hall isn’t just about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and the messy reign of the Tudors, nor even is it only about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to royalty and one of the more winning protagonists I can recall spending time with. Behind the palace intrigue, the printing press is changing the world, the convolution of religion and government is becoming untenable, and the petty whims of the royal court are planting the seeds of democracy and individual rights. And Hilary Mantel carries this all off astonishingly well in a thorough and thoroughly entertaining novel. The Lacuna has its charms, but, though smaller than Wolf Hall, it still feels flabby, a kitchen sink of a book to tell a story that might have been more powerful if told in half the space.
Kate Ortega: I’ve always been interested in Tudor England, and Mexico is also near and dear to my heart, so I knew going in that this was going to be a great matchup. The early pages of Wolf Hall, as Andrew W.K. pointed out, have family trees and a cast of characters to make Dickens blush and me drool. In The Lacuna, the early pages have a heavy dose of unnecessary Spanish, dropped in so much as to be interruptive. But the editor advises us that this is the only chapter ever revised by the book’s protagonist, and clearly Kingsolver was going for a certain style here; the rest of the book is beautifully written. Over in Wolf Hall, meanwhile, once I got into the story itself, the treatment of dialogue made almost every page a nightmare of re-reading to understand who said what. For the smoother writing, the stronger, more compelling tale, and my sadness when the story ended, this point goes to The Lacuna.
Alex Balk: These are two worthy selections, but in the end it was very easy to choose Wolf Hall. Mantel is certainly one of our best living writers, and her ability to pull you into a world and convince you that you’re really there is probably the main reason why that’s the case. I am already craving the sequel. Write fast, Hilary!
Jane Ciabattari: The finalists arrived. I took a moment to weigh. Two books, five pounds together, give or take a few ounces. Both historic novels, both, in odd parallel in how Henry VIII and Stalin handled enemies and rivals, involving vivid scenes of axes to the head.
The much-decorated Wolf Hall reassesses Thomas Cromwell’s place in history. I’d read it first last year and again in February during deliberations for the National Book Critics Circle fiction award (it won this year’s N.B.C.C. fiction award, and also the Man Booker). And I picked its opponent, The Lacuna, to move ahead in the Quarterfinals. So the task was rereading.
Wolf Hall is deliberate, revealing, dense, chilly, distant. The Lacuna is fierce, lush, adventuresome, and despite its flaws (not fully joined at the seams) ultimately more engaging.
Meave Gallagher: I wish Violet Brown would get herand by extension, Barbara Kingsolver’svoice out of The Lacuna’s strange mishmash of documents. Not that it would’ve been a perfect book without her interruptions and explanations, but it would’ve been a little more mysterious, and thereby better. Wolf Hall had so much potential that it sort of squandered on building Thomas Cromwell up to be the Best Man in its Universe. I appreciate how well Hilary Mantel contained and ordered such a massive place, but I couldn’t connect with it, however much I wanted to like it. Ultimately, I must listen to my viscera, and for all its flaws, I can’t stop loving The Lacuna.
Carolyn Kellogg: I wish there were a deity I believed in enough to evoke my suffering: THESE BOOKS ARE TORTURE. Maybe because my people left England about when Wolf Hall takes place, I am congenitally unable to give a fuck about Cromwell and his machinations (also: super-awkward third person!). The Lacuna is full of lush details, exactly the kind a modern vacationernot its narratorwould enjoy. I recommend any of the six other ToB books I read over these two (Let the Great World Spin; The Book of Night Women; Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned; Fever Chart; Big Machine; The Year of the Flood). To decide between them, I chucked them off my porch: Wolf Hall went further. My vote: Wolf Hall.
Jason Kottke: All three of the Tournament books I read (including Let the Great World Spin and The Lacuna) were more or less historical fiction, but Wolf Hall was the one that most put the reader into the action; it read very much like nonfiction. For that and Hilary Mantel’s graceful and beautiful and just flat-out great prose, Wolf Hall gets my vote for the Golden Rooster. (There is a Golden Rooster, right?)
Andrew W.K.: I was asked to choose between Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I had already chosen Wolf Hall in my previous bracket, selecting it over The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. Now, putting Mantel’s epic work up against The Lacuna, I feel it’s even more difficult to select one over the other. After a lot of debating, I’m going to commit to The Lacuna. It’s a vast work, similar in scope and ambition to Wolf Hall, but feels much different to read. It left me with a sense of up-close reality, versus a more distanced perspective. I love the words Kingsolver usesthey paint very vivid and sensual pictures in my mind. When a writer is able to create a physical feeling with their story, it makes spending time with their work a life experience, and not just reading a book.
Sam Anderson: I enjoyed The Lacuna, but with a big heaping bucketful of serious caveats. (For anyone wondering: Yes, that Nami Mun decision is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.) I enjoyed Wolf Hall with almost no caveats at all. (Maybe a couple at the bottom of the bucket: Could so many people be so very clever?) The weave is tighter, brighter, and more originaldespite the fact that its history is so deeply familiar. Mantel already won the warm-up prize, the Bookernow let’s give her the real deal.
Julie Powell: I enjoyed both of these books immensely. At first I thought The Lacuna would come out ahead for methe action is constant and page-turning, whereas in Wolf Hall, Mantel quite consciously moves at the snail’s pace that is history in the making. But ultimately Kingsolver’s beautiful but purplish prose and propelling but contrived plot points fell short of Wolf Hall’s graceful minimalism and slow but hypnotizing rhythms.