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There seem to be a few mixed reviews out there about this Booker winner, which I must admit I was surprised by as I thought it was great. In fact it was so great that I abandoned much of my life, stopped the studying I should have been doing in the evenings after work, and manged to plough through this chunky read (it comes in at 650 pages) in not that much time at all.

I think one of the strengths of this book is that Mantel has taken a character who is normally the villain in the background and put him centre stage, and the tale she has to tell is gripping. As Mantel says herself in an interview at the back of the copy I was reading, “…it was the arc of Cromwell’s story, the transformation from blacksmith’s son to Earl of Essex, that fascinated me. I wondered, ‘How is that done?'” And her characterisation is fantastic, firstly of a resolute, tough Cromwell who decides when he serves his King that he will serve him no matter what, but who also has a human side as he imagines his dead wife flitting across the corner of his eye, and realises his vanity when he sees Hans Holbein’s portrait of him. But also of King Henry, a vain man, strong, yet weak who has had too much of everything, a glittering, brittle Anne, her soft sister a prey to men, and the shy retiring Jane Seymour. She paints them all brilliantly.

And this is where I would have my only pause. In the past I have never been a fan of historical fiction. I like clear boundaries, I like to know what is true or not, and before I’ve always thought these types of novels muddy the water, and disrupt the clarity that more scholarly historians seek to portray. But now I am not so sure. Instead I think you just have to be aware of what you are reading. As I started to like and identify with Cromwell I just had to remind myself that this was just one possible portrayal of him, but one that had it uses. Instead of seeing him as ‘the bad guy’ I saw an alternative view, and of Thomas More, who I have always perceived as a Catholic martyr but now with this, and the play Anne Boleyn at the Globe, I have started to question that clear-cut view.

So, actually I think books like this have their place in teaching us about history. But we need to remember as Wolf Hall says, “It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.” This book looks from a different perspective upon Cromwell and may aid our historical understanding. My only concern is that we need to balance this against the drier scholarly works: it is an interesting picture but we mustn’t let the plausibility of well written novels rewrite history, we must balance the evidence. But, to me, this adds usefully, and enjoyably, to the debate. I will be reading the sequel eagerly.

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I found this a difficult book, because of my cultural background. The book describes the split within the Gikuyu people: those of them that wish to keep the tribe and its ways pure, and those that have converted to Christianity and have denounced the ways of the tribe. In the midst of this stands Waiyaki, born from a line of prophets he wants to unite the two factions – driven by his love of Nyambura, a Christian woman from the other side.

 The splintering event, that shattered the uneasy co-habitation that had existed before between the sides, was when Joshua, the leader of the christian faction, lost his daughter Muthoni to the rites of the tribe. She had wanted to be ‘a woman beautiful in the tribe’, so had left her father to undergo the circumcision ritual. She then died from complications. 

This book describes beautifully the situation that can arise when people split into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the dangers anyone faces who tries to breach this split. But I found it difficult to feel what I think the author was trying to get me to feel about the value of both tribal traditions and the new learning that the white man brought with him, and that the Gikuyu split was unnecessary and would end by them being destroyed by short-sightedness.

My problem was with the word circumcision I’m afraid I’m not a relativist who thinks that we should have unquestioning respect for other culture’s traditions no matter what, and think that other cultures values are just different but as good as ours. I always come back to one of Peter Cave’s philosophy problems in which he states, ‘Place a moral relativist in front of a screaming, innocent child being tortured. Ask her if she still thinks that what is being done is only relatively wrong’.

Now, I’m not comparing female circumcision, or to use the term I prefer, female genital mutilation, with child torture, but I do think it is a wrong and I think it is a practice that should be discouraged. It is much more invasive than the male version, and in some cases can have life-long gynecological ramifications. So, because of that viewpoint I found that unfortunately it coloured by reading of this book, and meant I had difficultly concentrating on the messages the author wanted me to take away from it.

However, I have another one of his to read as part of my African Writers challenge. So I have another opportunity to engage with his writing and hopefully my moral sensitivities won’t interfere with my reading in that case.