Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’

I know I haven’t posted for a long while and that I last promised to share the list of tips on dialogue from Karen Joy Fowler, but I have to share a brief review of a terrific book I read about a week ago.
Eight Months on Ghazzah StreetEight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent look into the life of an expatriate British woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia as she stumbles across a mystery but lacks the freedom and means to really explore for answers. Answers come in any case, gradually unfolding as the pages turn. Mantel is excellent, once again, at drawing her characters in unique ways, displaying all their various (and sometimes contradictory) facets like a diamond held up to the light.

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Wolf Hall: A NovelWolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had a soft spot for Sir Thomas More ever since I saw the excellent film, “A Man For All Seasons,” but this book turned my view upside down. Cromwell, the villain in the movie, is here very sympathetically fleshed out by Hilary Mantel, whereas More is depicted as cold and ruthless. I am left wondering which is the truer depiction. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In any case, the book was well worth the read, though it took me long enough. It took me a few chapters, too, to get used to Mantel’s use of the anonymous-seeming “he” to keep me deep in Cromwell’s POV as he observes all the developments at the court of King Henry VIII with regard to Wolsey, the queen, Ann Boleyn, etc. By the end, I had to wonder: “How did the main character change over the course of the novel?” There seemed to be no arc. For that reason, alone, I almost decided to rate it with only three stars. But then I realized that the author had put me so deeply in Cromwell’s mind that I was seeing with his eyes and no one really sees the arc in his/her own development. I’m sure when he looked in the mirror at age 50, when he was at the height of his power, he still saw and felt like the bruised, beaten boy he was at nine. His father had marked him for life.

Warning: this book is a bit raw in places (sexual references and descriptions of medieval torture), so if either of those kinds of things get to you, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the book.

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The author, Elmore Leonard, once said,

“All the information you need can be given in dialogue.”

While that may be true, in too many instances doing so would make for a pretty lousy read. You have to be careful not to overdo it so as to make it sound stilted. Here’s a bad example (again provided by Rita Mae Brown):

“As you know, Bob, we’ve been stuck on this desert island for twenty years, eating only the coconuts that grow on the one tree and fish which we catch with our hands.  We have several vitamin deficiencies, and you’ve been picking your nose this whole time.  Stop it, or I’m going to kill you!”

Brown points out that a better tactic would be to dramatise the exposition and use only one line of dialogue, as follows:

“Ted pounded the coconut open with a rock. It wasn’t quite ripe yet, but he was so tired of fish, and his fingernails stung in the salt water where they cracked and peeled. Bob sat on the beach a few yards away. He was picking his nose again. Again. “Stop it!” Ted screamed and picked up the rock he had used to smash the green coconut into meaty fragments.

Do you see how the scene has now come to life for the reader?

Here’s an extended example of dialogue (from Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall), which is skillfully written to reveal a lot without sounding stilted. In this scene, written from Cromwell’s point of view, Alice More, the wife of Sir Thomas More, is visiting Cromwell on her husband’s behalf:

“Well! When I came here before it was a musty old place. My husband used to say,” and he notes the past tense, “my husband used to say, lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the jailers will owe him money.”

“Did he talk a lot about locking me in dungeons?”

“It was only talk.” She is uneasy. “I thought you might take me to see the king. I know he’s always courteous to women, and kind.”

He shakes his head. If he takes Alice to the king she will talk about when he used to come to Chelsea and walk in the gardens. She will upset him: agitate his mind, make him think about More, which at present he doesn’t.

“He is very busy with the French envoys. He means to keep a large court this season. You will have to trust my judgment.”

The lesson? Dialogue can indeed provide exposition for the story, but don’t overdo it.

I’d love to hear your examples of good dialogue that provides exposition.

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I’m only about a fourth of the way through Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and it’s already clear why it won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The writing is superb and the characterization rings so true…particularly for the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell (always referred to as “he” in this book). He is mind, flesh and blood fully formed. And the dialogue snaps. Here’s a terrific scene with the Duke of Norfolk as Norfolk is making it clear that Cardinal Wolsey is on his way out in terms of being in the king’s good graces:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs’ bones. “Marry!” he says, for an oath, and “By the Mass!,” and sometimes takes out one of his medals or charms from wherever it is hung about his person, and kisses it in a fervor, calling on some saint or martyr to stop his current rage getting the better of him. “St. Jude give me patience!” he will shout; probably he has mixed him up with Job, whom he heard about in a story when he was a little boy at the knee of his first priest. It is hard to imagine the duke as a little boy, or in any way younger or different from the self he presents now. He thinks the Bible a book unnecessary for laypeople, though he understands priests make some use of it. He thinks book-reading an affectation altogether, and wishes there were less of it at court. His niece is always reading, Anne Boleyn, which is perhaps why she is unmarried at the age of twenty-eight. He does not see why it’s a gentleman’s business to write letters; there are clerks for that.

Now he fixes an eye, red and fiery. “Cromwell, I am content you are a burgess in the Parliament.”

He bows his head. “My lord.”

“I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.”

“Will they be the same, my lord?”

The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a . . . person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”

He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.

“Smile away,” says the duke. “Wolsey’s household is a nest of vipers. Not that . . .” he touches a medal, flinching, “God forbid I should . . .”

Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal’s money, and he wants the cardinal’s place at the king’s side: but then again, he doesn’t want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. “The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal’s affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war.”

“I hope he doesn’t think still of invading France.”

“God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own.” A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, “Mind you, you’re right.”

He waits. “We can’t win,” the duke says, “but we have to fight as if we can. Hang the expense. Hang the waste–money, men, horses, ships. That’s what’s wrong with Wolsey, you see. Always at the treaty table. How can a butcher’s son understand–“

“La gloire?”

“Are you a butcher’s son?”

“A blacksmith’s.”

“Are you really? Shoe a horse?”

He shrugs. “If I were put to it, my lord. But I can’t imagine–“

“You can’t? What can you imagine? A battlefield, a camp, the night before a battle–can you imagine that?”

“I was a soldier myself.”

“Were you so? Not in any English army, I’ll be bound. There, you see.” The duke grins, quite without animosity. “I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn’t like you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Where were you?”



“The French.”

The duke whistles. “Wrong side, lad.”

“So I noticed.”

I could go on and on, but then you wouldn’t buy the book for yourselves. And you should. You really should. All of us who write (or ever intend to write) historical fiction particularly should. This is HF at its best!

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I wish I had time to go back and do the research to prove my point in this posting. But I don’t. I’m trying to do one last revision of Laps before tossing it out there into the big ocean of agents and seeing if it gets picked up or sinks. So going back to re-read or scan through several different books is simply not possible at this time. If it were, I’d be able to give you exact numbers and references.

Nevertheless, I have been amazed of late how many of the novels (and manuscripts) I’ve recently read feature the word “tendril” more than once. Suzanne Collins used it several times in both The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire. I believe I came across it more than once in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Carol Lynch Williams’s The Chosen One. I’d have to say, however, that the winner is the novel I completed on Sunday. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott must feature that word at least five or six times.

How about you? Are you finding this word used more and more frequently? I actually used to like the word but, as they say, “familiarity breeds contempt.” What’s wrong with saying a “lock” of hair? Must it be a “tendril?” After all, tendrils refer more to plants, but the way I’ve seen it used (or shall I say overused) lately, I shouldn’t be surprised if its meaning slowly evolves away from the plant kingdom.

“Tendril” is not a common word, or at least it didn’t use to be. And that is precisely why it stands out so much to me in a story, particularly if used repeatedly. I suppose writers find it a touch poetic and so it appeals to them on that level. But I believe it’s reached the point of saturation.

How about you? Have you noticed it much in your readings? Do you like to use it yourself? Speak up, all you tendril-loving writers! I’m open to a discussion of its merits, as well as its weaknesses.

In the meantime, I’ve begun to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (this latter one with my son). You can be sure I’ll be keeping count of each and every “tendril” I come across.

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