Man Booker Shortlist


The Shortlist has been announced and of my predictions four were correct. I’ll read and review all of them by 16th October when the winner is announced. The official Man Booker Prize announcement is here.

I’m really pleased with this list. Of the books that I’ve read all the ones I really wanted on the list have made it. It’s great to see all three indies make it through. I really enjoyed Swimming Home and The Lighthouse in their very different ways. Bring Up the Bodies was  as good as I expect of Mantel and Umbrella is extraordinary. Onward to Narcopolis and The Garden of Evening Mists!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Man Booker Shortlist Prediction

I must come clean immediately and point out that I have not read all of the Booker Longlist. I managed six, which is exactly half of the longlist. I have two (Narcopolis and The Garden of Evening Mists) left over which I will read and review soonish. So my predictions are based on my own reading and that of people whose opinions I set some store by. They should be read as much as a list of what I would like to see shortlisted as of what I think will be. It undoubtedly suffers from my not having read everything. (The full Longlist is here).


Man Booker Longlist: Skios – Michael Frayn

Part of the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012 Series.

That Michael Frayn can deliver a well-turned farce should come as no surprise. That he should do so whilst reflecting on the nature of the form itself and on the intimately related issues of identity and causality whilst never ceasing to be amusing is something one must seriously admire. The great, the good, and the not-so-good are gathering on the balmy Greek island of Skios for the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual Great European House Party: an event ostensibly aimed at promoting so-called European values of culture and cooperation. The House Party always ends with a distinguished guest lecturer. This year that lecturer has been chosen by ambitious PA Nikki Hook. (‘Discreetly tanned, discreetly blonde, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.’)

There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there had always been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.

This year that lecturer is the esteemed and influential science administrator and expert in scientometrics Dr Norman Wilfred, a man with very mixed feelings about the rigmarole of the lecture circuit, and slightly less mixed feelings about the perks of said circuit. That impersonation and living by one’s wits will be at the heart of Skios is signalled by the bowl in the guest lecturers’ quarters decorated with an image of Odysseus landing on the island disguised as an itinerant knife-grinder. Who, precisely, is impersonating whom, and for what purpose, isn’t entirely straightforward, but the shiftless and incorrigible chameleon at the centre is one rather Ripley-like Oliver Fox, supposedly on his way to a borrowed villa for a dalliance with a married woman. Goodness, might Wilfred and Fox have similar cases? Might they be on the same flight? Might Nikki, who dreams of the Directorship of the Foundation and an attractive and esteemed lecturer, have gone to the airport without a photograph of the man she intends to meet? Well,

 She watched him approach. He was still smiling. She was still smiling herself, she realised.

‘Dr Wilfred?’ she said.

‘I cannot tell a lie,’ said Oliver. No – said Dr Wilfred.

And so it begins. The premise is ridiculous. We know it’s ridiculous, Frayn knows it’s ridiculous. Its very absurdity is part, firstly, of the form of farce and, secondly, and more interestingly, part of Frayn’s reflection on the form of farce and the contingencies of human interaction. It’s hard to say quite how he does this without giving some crucial plot points away. In Skios characters have their sense of identity shaped by others’ expectations of them, who are, in turn, shaped by yet more expectations and apparent obligations in an endless reciprocal web of projected concerns. When one is already an impostor, that relationship can only unbalance one’s identity even further. As things become ever more, well, farcical, Frayn reveals everyone to be, in some sense, something of an impostor, including the Foundation itself. What is striking is how self-interested everyone is, whilst still being so affected by others’ opinions as to their worth and identity.

Wilfred and Fox are polar opposites: one the man of science, committed to a strict brand of determinism, the other so unpredictable in his actions as to verge on the pathological. Wilfred doesn’t just believe in science’s capacity to unearth the chains of cause and effect underlying everything, he is also professionally committed to its measured management. It is this issue of the nature of one event’s relationship to another that lies at the heart of farce, and Frayn plays each character’s approach to life off the other, culminating in something of a step back and reflection on the form itself. Thus the absurdity of the initial premise plays into this reflection and is ultimately vindicated by the clear self-awareness of the form Frayn is working in. It is this aspect, more than any other, I suspect, that led to Skios’ Booker longlisting.

So Frayn’s novel is fundamentally a consideration of naming and fate – remember that image of Odysseus? –  all wrapped up in a completely ridiculous, but pretty enjoyable, comedy of errors. The two Greek taxi drivers named Spiros and Stavros who are always mistaken for one another should give some indication of the tone. Skios is a well-crafted and fast-paced philosophical romp around a sun-drenched island populated with self-interested characters who see what they want to see, right to the end.

Man Booker Longlist: The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

In The Lighthouse Alison Moore has created an unsettling, seemingly becalmed but oddly sensual, and entirely excellent novel. The middle-aged and recently separated Futh is going on a walking-tour in Germany to clear his head before returning to a single life in a flat full of boxes his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Angela, had to pack for this stunningly ineffectual man. Futh’s very name is an awkward monosyllabic cotton-woollish and wholly unmemorable sound. He is constantly outrun and unbalanced by the actions of other people: the aggressive cuckolded hotel-manager, whose wife desires his mother’s silver lighthouse perfume case, his father’s women, and his bored wife who echoes the mother who left him as a child. Time and again Futh ends up in the middle of others’ problems but is too inept to realise it and suffers as a consequence.

His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left.

Futh is lost in the present, at home only vaguely in the past. Indeed, it is as if his development was arrested the moment his mother left, and everything else is seen through the lens of that departure, that void. His childishness is remarkable: in one episode Futh, fully-grown physically at least, is smacked by his father for speaking out of turn. He has so little idea of how to conduct himself that his behaviour renders him frankly creepy. At one point he approaches a woman reading an English book and tells her she smells like his wife. Matters are only made worse when she sees his hand thrust deep into his pocket as he talks: he’s clutching his lighthouse, which takes on a rather phallic dimension in Moore’s writing at this point. When he first arrives at his German hotel he encounters Ester, the chronically unfaithful wife of the manager, who sleeps with passing men in the guest rooms.

 He stands in front of her, and she regards him, this man with gravy on his chin and on his shirt and even on the crotch of his trousers. ‘I’m Futh,’ he says again in English. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’

And yet no one is really expecting him. Futh is, at almost every point, superfluous.

A strange symmetry runs throughout the novel. Symmetries of smell and memory, of stains and disinfectant, and of the sense of lives cut adrift and slowly driven onto the rocks at the very moment they thought themselves safe. At the centre is the lighthouse, the object with which Futh orientates himself to the world. It becomes fairly clear that he has chosen the wrong reference point. Futh’s silver lighthouse belonged to his mother who liberally applied its expensive scent of violets and he repeatedly returns to the moment atop a cliff where he first recognised the fractures in his parents’ marriage.

Futh, up on the cliffs in Cornwall with the silver lighthouse in one hand and the stoppered glass vial in the other, wandered back to his parents. His mother was still lying with her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun. His father was looking out to sea and then Futh heard him say, ‘The foghorn blasts every thirty seconds.’

’Do you know,’ said his mother, ‘how much you bore me?’

The vial shatters in Futh’s small fist, scarring his hand and rendering the silver lighthouse hollow as his mother leaves him. Ester also has a lighthouse but hers is a cheaper wooden version: a symbol of her dissatisfaction, her infidelity a symbol of her dissipation. Their coming together does not bode well for Futh and Moore handles the denouement (for once a fitting term) very well indeed.

Moore builds a picture of a deflated and damaged man with whom it can be very difficult to feel any sympathy. Throughout particular smells attract Futh: violets, orange peel, apples, cigarette smoke warm cotton. All of them signal the memory of his mother and motivate his search for substitutes which seems to sully every relationship. Time and again his wife tells him ‘I’m not your mother’ in the face of some request. The artificial evocation of his mother through scent signals Futh’s sheltering within the false, with the safe. His professional life was bound up with producing artificial smells – the now outmoded scratch’n’sniff cards. Their dependability after twenty years is what matters most to him: these tiny bottles of scent don’t leave him. His essential childishness and need for support sabotages every endeavour. He can’t even manage a regular meal or avoid sunburn and blisters whilst on holiday. At times, his obsession with the past takes on more disturbing sexual dimensions, a result of his father’s dalliances in shared hotel rooms.

It is interesting to compare The Lighthouse to another Booker longlisted indie novel Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.  Both create an uncomfortable atmosphere of unhappiness and loss, both hark back in some sense to parents and childhood and dependence, and yet they are so different in tone and structure that reading both as part of the Booker longlist is a complementary, if not  altogether cheering, experience. Levy’s prose creates a fluid space of uncertain dimensions within a crystalline, faceted structure, which is resistant to interpretation beyond a certain point. Moore, however, sustains an understated but utterly compelling drive, which unflinchingly documents the failings of her protagonist, piling each unexceptional moment on the next, to create a discomforting and moving portrait of intense loss.

Man Booker Longlist: Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

On the surface the Booker longlisted Swimming Home is another study of middle-class woes set in a really rather nice Provencal villa in the hills above Nice in 1994. Two couples, African ‘emporium’ owners Laura and Mitchell – awkwardly tall and overweight, respectively – and the famous poet Joe Jacobs and his war correspondent wife Isabel with their daughter, Nina, lounge around the swimming pool.  Their thinly veiled dislike for one another is destabilised by the arrival of the young self-proclaimed botanist Kitty Finch, first glimpsed beneath the pool’s surface, her body warped by the water, naked and painfully thin. All this is observed from a neighbouring balcony by Dr Madeleine Sheridan who knows rather more about the history of Kitty’s mental health than is immediately apparent.

Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.

She is allowed to stay in the spare room by Isabel for reasons that are not at all clear. Like so much else, we cannot be sure if Isabel’s motivation is as opaque to her as it is the reader. As the book progresses it become clear that Levy is doing something far more interesting than the normal literary investigation of summer implosion in a pretty setting. Small misunderstandings paralyse because they momentarily undermine convention and thus disorientate. Yet Kitty’s frequent nakedness is so gross a breach that it goes almost unmentioned. Kitty strips people both literally and figuratively and thus precipitates a crisis. The couples’ unconscious and intuitive dissembling is derailed by a character ill enough to be both open to everything and willing to highlight anything. There is, however, some connection, some deep understanding, between Kitty and Joe, rooted in his writing, with which she is so obsessed, and a shared mental anguish, bound up with the poet’s confused Mittel-European heritage.

How could she tell her that she and Joe were transmitting messages to each other when she didn’t understand it herself?

Levy has cited John Cheever’s story The Swimmer as a strong influence on Swimming Home, and the correspondences abound once one is aware of the relationship. Cheever’s muscular prose is echoed in Levy’s lean translucent sentences which are anything but lucid. In her lambent style Levy alludes to so much, but renders so much mysterious. She emphasises the manner in which the desire for simplicity is its own negation, because that desire leads to repression, to communication without any substance but misunderstanding and anger and pain. Mitchell and Laura  are far less carefree than they seem, Joe and Isabel so detached from one another, each, in their own way, slipping into depression. Perhaps the most interesting relationship is between Joe and Nina, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

They never talked about his own childhood or his girlfriends. This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.

This needling discomfort is mirrored in the reader. Throughout the book flashes of sincerity melt in the heat of the Summer and in the sheer danger of expression. Levy doesn’t allow a smooth transition between the internal and external for either her characters or the reader. This is part of what makes Swimming Home so unsettling. As with Neddy in The Swimmer, whose initial choice to swim the county seems to lack any clear rationale, so Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the theoretically transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires and dreams. That uncertainty is constantly brought to a head by Kitty, whose unpredictability disorientates everyone.

 No one felt able to intervene because they did not fully know what it was they were seeing. It reminded Nina of the day she watched an eclipse through a hole in coloured paper, careful not to be blinded by the sun.

The violence lying behind, the seething plasma of desire, tamed by repression and the everyday: that is Levy’s concern; and behind that, death. Tom McCarthy flings Freudian terms about with abandon in the introduction, and he is right to highlight the shadow of death and neurosis beneath Levy’s writing. That darkness runs through Swimming Home, but it does not suffocate, even if it unnerves.  It is the sheer lack of control that strikes one so forcefully. This can be seen in Levy’s physical concerns. Our bodies outrun us in both youth and old age. As Nina becomes increasingly aware of her body and its effect on others, so Madeleine becomes aware of her aches and pains and her increasing invisibility. The romantic intentions of the local café waiter Claude, so enamoured of Nina, stand in stark opposition to the disinterest of the waiters in Nice to Madeleine’s desperate and over-primped entreaties.

Madeleine’s determination to strip away the layers of others’ deceit is as destructive and ill-willed as her aging. There are no simple answers to the problems in Swimming Home. Psychoanalysis hovers in the background, but does little good. So often to analyse is to obfuscate and destroy. That probably goes for reviews as well. And in that spirit I have to admit to certain, very limited, reservations about the ending or epilogue, where the surrealist family dreams of the epigraph return. It feels tacked on, as is the risk with epilogues, and lacks the weight of the rest of the book. Had the book ended in 1994 there would have been a symmetry to what is an intensely graceful work. But this is a small reservation.

Swimming Home deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist. It provides few answers, but does so with such economical prose and circling, gestured characterisation, falling towards a deep sadness. As only the third novel released by the small subscription-based publisher And Other Stories it is a real triumph (and beautifully produced). Definitely recommended.

Man Booker Longlist: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices

This is a hard book to review. Not because it is bad. In fact, it is by turns charming, heart-warming, distressing, and profound; a novel of intense regret, grief, great tenderness, faith, and desolation. As Rachel Joyce’s debut novel it is a great achievement and deserves its place on the Man Booker Longlist. It is hard to review – at least as I find it – because the achievement of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is so tightly bound up with the cumulative effect of its various vignettes – the people and places Harold comes across – with the insights and setbacks Harold experiences, some of which seem trite or mere truisms in isolation, but which grow in the telling and in the initially Prufrockish person of Harold himself. Likewise, Joyce’s style is so unobtrusive, not plodding but diligent in its articulation of Harold and his wife’s voices that it threatens to defy analysis.

Harold is a retired and retiring sixty-five year old living in South Devon and with nothing to do. He is intensely insecure, private, wary of attention and emotional engagement.  His difficult childhood and that of his troubled son have hollowed him out, fearing and mishandling emotional connections to others. One day in mid-April, as he sits at the kitchen table, a letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former employee at the misogynist-dominated brewery from which Harold has retired. She is dying of cancer in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold resolves to escape the house and his snappy, impatient, and sarcastic wife, for a while and post her a rather lame reply.

 Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the post box.

Harold keeps walking, meets a girl in a petrol station who speaks of cancer and faith, and comes to believe he can do something for Queenie, who long ago did something for him. So begins the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry to Berwick-upon-Tweed: ‘Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.’

Maureen is left alone in Devon to contemplate a life without Harold, from whom she has become so estranged. ‘She thought of their cold beds, in separate rooms, and the words they shared, which skimmed the surface and meant nothing.’ Since their son left them, Harold and Maureen have come to be coincidental occupiers of the same house, unable to bridge the gap between them. As in Larkin’s poem Talking in Bed ‘more and more time passes silently’, so

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words and once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

I was recently reminded by Charles Fernyhough of a line from Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude ‘Memory: the space in which a thing happens for the second time.’ As he walks Harold’s memories, of his son, his wife, his absent mother and unsatisfactory father, and Queenie, assail him, deepening his despair and losing nothing in their recollection, but rather intensifying as though thickened by time and the impotence of distance.

Later in the same book Auster quotes Hölderlin who, before his first mental breakdown, undertook his own three-month walk from Bordeaux to Stuttgart across the Massif Central in 1802. Following the death of his wife, he spent thirty-six years in a room in a tower, built for him by a carpenter called Zimmer (which means room in German). Like Hölderlin Harold seems to have lived in one stuffy compartment of his life. And yet,


The lines of life are various as roads or as

The limits of the mountains are, and what we are

Down here, in harmonies, in recompense,

In peace forever, a god will finish there.

The heart of this book is the walk, the journey along the lines of life begun by Harold as he finally steps away in his yachting shoes from his staid life, only to find himself walking through it, seeing everything around him in terms of it his memories, regrets, optimism, or despair. Throughout Joyce summons parallels between the weather and Harold’s state of mind. The landscape of Britain becomes the geography of his life, the people and places, flora and fauna, the moments of joy when all around appears radiant, and the moments of desolation and utter isolation, which are themselves intensified by Harold and Maureen’s inability to communicate. There are moments where the story can strike one as repetitive, punctuated as it is by many moments of despair and subsequent new beginnings; but then such a journey is repetitive – will involve returning to thoughts, moments, memories. Some images can feel a little contrived, but occasionally they really hit home.

He looked out at the rain, waiting for it to break, and saw a crow with its head bowed, its feathers so wet they shone like tar. He wished the bird would move, but it sat sodden and alone. Maureen was so busy she had hardly noticed Harold had gone.

What rescues Harold’s insights from apparent triviality is their place in the context of his stunted emotional development. He meets an apparently prosperous gentleman in a railway café, and yet,

He was a chap like himself with a unique pain; and yet there was no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake…It must be the same all over England.

This line might feel, perhaps does feel somewhat underwhelming, but Harold has never felt such things before, and this realisation, reinforced with each person he meets, leads to the heart of Joyce’s novel.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

And thus, as in Pilgrim’s Progress so in Harold Fry atonement integrates both the journey and its telling. At-one-ment: the return to a state of harmony, an act of reconciliation and reparation for past wrongs. The dark heart of this book questions the meaning and possibility of such things for Harold very effectively through the lens of his troubled relationship with his difficult son; but, at the same time Joyce questions the limits of our responsibility for others’ choices, a weight that surely all parents feel. She does so very well indeed and marshals the turbulence, love, fear, doubt, and faith of a life with originality in that most frequent of metaphors, the journey.

Man Booker 2012 Series

Right, I’m going to be reading the longlisted books this Summer/Autumn. There is a tab above where I will collate all the reviews. I’ve already posted some thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s characterisation which will suffice. It’s too long since I read it for me to go back and write a full review. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is already on my shelf, so that will be the next book on the list. Time to get reading.

Booker Longlist thoughts

EDIT: So, my maths is pretty awful as well. I got three right.

Well, I got that pretty wrong then. Of the thirteen novels I predicted, I managed to score hits on only two; and those were, I thought, pretty solid bets, so I can’t take much credit for that. Small/independent publishers are well represented, although three novels for Fourth Estate is pretty big for them. There is some SF (The Teleportation Accident) and a lot of humour. Overall, pretty interesting and pretty unexpected: no Banville, Zadie Smith, Hensher, Carey, P. Barker, or McEwan. There is also no Hawthorn and Child which I think is pretty disappointing and the main let-down of the list. I’m thinking about trying to read them before the shortlisting, but I’m not sure yet. I’ve got a lot on!

The longlist

The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre)

Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)

Man Booker longlist Prediction

OK, I’ve given in and made the following rather unsurprising predictions for tomorrow.

  • Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
  • Ancient Light – John Banville
  • Hawthorn and Child – Keith Ridgway
  • Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
  • The Yips – Nicola Barker
  • NW – Zadie Smith
  • Merivel – Rose Tremain
  • The Painter of Silence  – Georgina Harding
  • Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
  • John Saturnall’s Feast – Lawrence Norfolk
  • Umbrella – Will Self
  • The Land of Decoration – Grace McLeen
  • The Big Music – Kirsty Gunn

Hilary Mantel and the Moralists

Part of the Man Booker Longlist Series

In Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels we follow the rise to power of Henry VIII’s minister and facilitator as he navigates and terrorises the Royal Court of the 1530s. In Wolf Hall Cromwell emerges from the shadow of the doomed Cardinal Wolsey and helps resolve Henry’s Great matter in favour of the seductive Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies his star continues to rise as Boleyn’s sets in favour of the seemingly unremarkable Jane Seymour. Cromwell enables and disables Henry in not-quite-equal measure; his very service and facilitation of Henry’s desires ensures their insatiable and changeable nature. The better Cromwell appears to satisfy Henry’s wants – and, of course, it is often only an appearance – the more he is held to such success in the future. The more he is hostage to caprice. Mantel’s next novel will show where this must lead.

Anthony Beevor has recently professed a dislike for historical fiction, arguing that it blurs the boundaries between history and fiction. As Mantel writes in her Authors Note in Bring Up The Bodies, however, she offers only an interpretation of the people and events of that turbulent time. This, of course, is the strength of historical fiction and allows Mantel to explore certain questions of human nature and motivation within that context without being assessed for historical rigour, although she displays plenty of that. The intimacy she achieves amidst events so often the subject matter of the epic is symptomatic of the best historical fiction and cannot be criticised for that. Characters recognisable as human, and in the most human situation of marriage, birth, death, play out their lives on the most public of stages. And it is when the private explodes into public view – as for Royals it must – that she is at her best.

In ‘Jane Austen and the Moralists’ the philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues that Austen was a writer interested in theoretical problems about human nature and conduct; whether, for example, ‘deep feeling is compatible with being reasonable’ (Sense and Sensibility), or ‘What makes it sometimes legitimate or even obligatory for one person deliberately to try to modify the course of another person’s life, while sometimes such attempts are wrong?’ (Emma) To an extent Mantel marries such opposing traits in her central characters. Anne Boleyn is a mixture of cold reason and hot passion, each intensifying the other in an overreaching rage of resentment and calculation. Whichever is the driving force at any one moment can be no guide as to the next. In contrast, Jane Seymour is everything Boleyn is not: inexpressive, seemingly uncalculating, virginal, and, of course, fecund, or so it is hoped. Cromwell himself seems to embody repressed passion, presenting only a blank mechanical exterior to the world, whilst harbouring a hidden violence.

It would be neat if one could sum up Mantel’s Cromwell novels in terms of an exploration of such dualities as the conflict between personal feeling and duty, or between action and reaction, but her work is more complex than that, and all the better for it. Her moral psychology is complex and avowedly not the bi-polar arrangement of good and bad that Ryle terms ‘Calvinist’. In contrast, he writes, ‘A person is not black or white, but iridescent with all the colours of the rainbow; and he is not a flat plane, but a highly irregular solid.’ And yet this ‘Aristotelian’ moral psychology cannot apply wholeheartedly to anyone in Mantel’s work other than Cromwell, for in an entirely deliberate fashion she leaves the thoughts and actions of others opaque: we, and Cromwell, can conjecture, even be fairly certain, as to the motivations and character of others, but it is only conjecture born of experience and acquaintance with humanity. Even Cromwell’s knowledge of Henry’s moods and how best to handle him is born of trial and error, garnered from the advice of Wolsey, and his ability to project himself into the minds of others.

Mantel’s writing mirrors the psychology of her protagonist. As Cromwell is thoughtful and patient so is Mantel’s prose. Yet there are flashes of depth and introspection in both, which are all the more striking for the measured action and narration surrounding them. Cromwell’s reflection on the lowliness and instability of his origins – detailed in Wolf Hall – enables him to navigate more deftly a world built on the order, birth, and power from which he was initially excluded and alien. His very ascent to power empowers him in a way that the aristocracy cannot understand. It is telling that eventual doom should be heralded by admission to the ranks of a class he has so terrorised. And yet, even Cromwell’s motives and convictions are unclear much of the time. Of course, his driving passion seems to be vengeance for the hounding and death of Cardinal Wolsey, but even this underdetermines the quiet ferocity of his actions which contrast so strongly with the kindness of his behaviour to others. Indeed, it is his very slipperiness of identity that so alienates Cromwell from others who rule. They are as duplicitous as he is, but he does not even have the virtue of their breeding.

At the heart of these novels is a vagueness of motivation, an instability of character, which moves Mantel’s work beyond Ryle’s Aristotelian moral psychology toward a more characteristically modern, perhaps more humanistic, understanding of motivation and duty. This vagueness goes hand in hand, of course, with the indeterminate nature of historical interpretation: ‘truth’ is a term anathema to historians these days. There is both a moral and a motivational vagueness in Cromwell. He seems likeable from inside, a man who cares about family, duty, and service: in the context of the 16th Century he seems a near paragon. And yet even we can’t be sure what he really thinks, and certainly those around him can never be sure. It is those who watch him most keenly who seem to understand him best, those who trust to his word are both few and far between and likely deceived. We certainly can’t acquit Cromwell for Anne’s death; a death that Mantel is careful to leave far from justifiable on the grounds that Cromwell believes her guilty. Her wrongdoing is never laid bare and nor is that of her courtiers. Is Cromwell simply facilitating Henry, advancing the interests of the nation, or cleaving to old loyalties? This impenetrability is characteristic of Mantel’s characters reflects one of the (few) aspects of moral psychology that Immanuel Kant and David Hume held in common: we can never be really sure why we do act in as we do, especially in ethical matters. Duty, self-interest, both, neither, one masquerading as the other? Cromwell is often questioned about his motives. His outward certainty belies his humanity.