Book Reviews

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

For those readers who are familiar with the historical events which greatly affected King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, as well as their complicated relationship with each other, the novel Wolf Hall will be a refresher. Even then, this novel provides exquisite details and adds depth to the characters who become more than historic figures from the 1500s.

Readers who are new to the history of Britain and particularly to the complex lives of the monarchs and their successors and the intrigue of the various courts in Europe, Wolf Hall may see Wolf Hall as more like a fantasy.

The story begins as King Henry is desperate to annul his twenty year marriage to Katherine of Aragon who has been unable to give him a son. He plans to marry the younger, Anne Boleyn in hopes of birthing an heir to the throne. Anne who is one of the daughters of diplomat Thomas Boleyn has come to court from France at age twenty and has worked to marry well.

Thomas Cromwell of Austin Friars is the key player whom the story revolves around, and was born in Putney to a father, Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith and brewer who beat him viciously until he fled at the age of fifteen to pick up work on the wharf and later with the French army. He works his way up to assist the cardinal, Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, as his man of business where he becomes a valued member of the staff.

King Henry abandons Cardinal Wolsey and bans him to lesser and lesser lodgings away from the Court because he’s been unable to convince the Pope to annual his marriage to Queen Katherine. Thomas Cromwell continues to serve the cardinal up to the time of his exile and intervenes to see that Wolsey gets better treatment from the King. Over time, the King takes Cromwell into his confidence and eventually onto his own staff.

Cromwell builds confidences, first with Mary Boleyn and later with Anne knowing they will have the king’s protection. While still living at Austin Friars, he spends more and more time at Court with Henry and seems the various power struggles going on behind the scenes.

Henry gets his desire and marries Anne, installing her at Court and banishing Katherine to older country properties and separates her from her daughter, Mary. Anne has a daughter, Elizabeth, much to Henry’s disappointment and the second pregnancy ends with a miscarriage. Henry starts a campaign of identifying and murdering through either hanging or burning everyone who still supports the first Queen including Thomas Moore, the new Lord Chancellor while Cromwell as Henry’s right hand man, continues to prosper.

The Sentimentalists
The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Published by Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto in 2009
Winner of the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Johanna Skibsrud’s novel tells the story of Napoleon Haskell, a Vietnam veteran now aging, who keeps his traumatic experiences buried underneath the very ordinary day-to-day lifestyle he maintains. I enjoyed the way that the narrator was able to bring her father to life through stories of the family unit with her mother and her sister Helen. He showed his love of the narrator’s mother by building a sail boat for her although he himself didn’t particularly like the water. Even after the breakup of the family, the two children continued to visit with their father every summer in an old house in Casablanca owned by his friend, Henry. The house has a mystery as well since it’s built on top of an earlier town that was buried. The similarities with Napoleon are hard to ignore.
Through her lyrical prose, the narrator draws the reader into her emotional path from a childhood in a single parent family pulled between two parents, to acknowledging her ongoing love and loyalty towards her father. Since her own relationship broke down recently, she has reunited with her father during his last few years of life.
The book reminded me that we need to cherish the generation of older souls who either through their natural personality or due to their upbringing never learned how to express deep emotions openly. They have treasures in memories buried beneath the surface which can be gently unearthed by a loved one who has the patience to listen.
Readers who are attracted by nostalgia will enjoy The Sentimentalists since the writer has provided a glimpse into small town living along the border between Canada and the United States with detailed descriptions of the characters that lived there during her father’s time.


The Mistress of Nothing
The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger published by McArthur & Company in 2009, Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award

The major strength of this novel is the extensive research by the author of the settings in Cairo and Luxor in the 1800s. Kate has chosen to write this story in the first person voice of the maidservant Sally Naldrett through whom we are provided insight into the life of her mistress Lady Duff Gordon. Lucy who has enjoyed life with her husband Sir Alick and three children in London society where she eagerly joined in the conversations of local politics and economics is exiled to Egypt as a possible cure for her tuberculosis. The natural curiously of the two women leads them to embrace their time in a new and exotic country exploring the monuments and temples of Abydos and Edfu and the statues of Rameses II. An Egyptian house servant, Omar Abu Halaweh joins them on the journey down the Nile teaching them Arabic and sharing stories about the local culture. For some time, the three of them enjoy meals and conversation daily, however, once they are settled in The French House in Luxor, a secret romance between Sally and Omar creates a distance between the two women. When the romance results in the birth of a son, Lady Duff Gordon discovers the real nature of their relationship and bans Sally from her service. Omar fills in both roles with his Lady while Sally is left to care for their new baby confined to her room. Marriage to Omar brings happiness for Sally but does nothing to resolve the rift created between the two women by her Lady and she is eventually forced to leave the house. Refusing to leave Egypt as demanded by Lucy, Sally is forced to fend for herself in Cairo and places their son in the household of his father and his first wife. Through perseverance and with help from Omar, Sally is able to enjoy her personal freedom and to make a life for herself and her son. When her Lady dies, Sally looks on at the funeral from a distance and realizes that the break with Lady Duff Gordon was inevitable from the time she found love and happiness while Lucy was losing her family and facing death alone. I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys history and an unusual love story.


Still Alice

by Lisa Genova published by Pocket Books, New York, January 2009

I read this book with some trepidation since several of my friends in the over sixth age group warned me that they had avoided it because of their fears about Alzheimer’s disease. However, once I started to read it I was hooked by the courage with which Alice faced her destiny. A Harvard professor, at age fifty she began to experience the strange symptoms of forgetfulness and disorientation that lead to her diagnosis. Alice shares with us her initial fears and the techniques and tools she uses with the support of her family to maintain as normal a life as possible. She is even able to introduce some humour about her situation such as the time she searched the entire house in vain for her Blackberry that contained all her day to day activities. In frustration, she finally gives up. Weeks later she finds it in the freezer when taking out a package of frozen food for dinner. The shift in her relationships with her husband and three adult children as the disease progresses clearly shows how different people cope differently with the tragedy. The author’s attention to details about coping day to day and the emotional impact for Alice of losing abilities but not herself make this a book that I strongly recommend.


Fifteen Dogs

by Andre Alexis published by Coach House Books, 2015, winner of Giller Prize

The author has written a philosophical novel which shows the struggle between nature and culture through giving fifteen dogs human traits and personalities through a gift from the Gods, Apollo and Hermes. The fifteen dogs struggle for survival within a pack with most having tried to adopt the culture of humans but reverting to the dominance strategies of a dog’s nature. All fifteen have human names and each has his or her own individual personality.

The story is narrated by the two Gods, Apollo and Hermes who have a deep discussion about the nature of humanity and whether or not humans are better or worse than other species. Hermes states that humans have no special knowledge and wonder if giving animals human intelligence would make them as unhappy as humans are. Apollo says some humans are happy and some are not so animals with human intelligence would likely also be unhappy at times. Hermes makes a bet that if even one animal is happy at the end of a year of having human intelligence, he wins the bet and he will work for Apollo for the same time period.

They find a pack of dogs at a veterinary clinic at Shaw Street in Toronto and choose fifteen of them to give human speech and the ability to think and then release them. They agree that the dogs will retain some dog memories. The primary dog characters in the story are Majnoun, a black poodle sometimes referred to as “Lord Jim” and Prince, a mutt who composes poetry. The pack lives in High Park for some time with Atticus working to establish a role as pack leader. The dogs struggle between accepting their new gifts and wanting to revert to their dog nature. As part of their nature they mount other dogs at will and use dominance to keep the top dog in control.

The story follows Prince as a great performer of poetry and his eventual death at the hands of the pack. At the final moment, Hermes saves him allowing him a life as a spirit looking down on the other dogs. But the main character is Majnoun who embraces English and through a couple, Miguel and Nira, who adopt him after he is injured by the other dogs, learns the ways of humans. Majoun sees Miguel as the natural leader but forms a strong attachment with Nira who has long conversations with him and teaches him about music and movies. Majnoun is unhappy when Nira challenges his belief in Miguel as the leader and says she is an equal with her husband. Majoun is satisfied when she finally agrees that she is equal with Majoun and that Miguel is superior. The dominance theme plays out even between he and Nira whom he loves.

Life goes on with this couple until Majoun is about ten when Miguel and Nira start to quarrel daily and Majoun thinks they need time alone. They agree to have a weekend get away and to leave him alone in the house. In the meantime, the spirits in charge of lifespan know Majoun’s life should be almost over and attempt to cut his string. Instead they cut two strings which turn out to be the ones for Miguel and Nira leaving Majoun alone and extending his life indefinitely. Hermes is forced to intervene in an attempt to win his bet.

I would recommend this book to readers who have a good imagination and who enjoy exploring human nature and why people and, in this case, animals do what they do. The author brings all fifteen dogs into life through use of strong senses and each has their own understanding of their role in life. His ability to illustrate how the dogs force each other into submissive positions shows us their true nature. Through both Prince and Majnoun, readers get a sense of how close to human thought some animals can become.