“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is flat pretending to be round.” – E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel
These two historical novels make a good match. Hilary Mantel demonstrates what can be achieved, Marlon James demonstrates the difficulty of achieving it.
The protagonist of Wolf Hall is, by Forster’s standard, round. Most readers will have some familiarity with the name and deeds of Thomas Cromwell, though, for many on the west coast of the Atlantic, details may be sketchy. Even considerable familiarity does not bleed Cromwell of convincing surprise. Cromwell is round and he is brilliantly invented.
Mantel manages to fill the novel with other convincing characters as well. Thomas More, King Henry, Queen Anne, Thomas Cranmer, and Cardinal Wolsey, to name a handful, are characters who “are ready for an extended life”, as Forster puts it in describing Jane Austen’s characters. Partly, this is because of the original method Mantel has of narrating the novel. “He” refers to Cromwell unless context suggests otherwise. By this fairly unique method, Mantel is able to make the third-person peculiarly intimate. We know the other characters as Cromwell knows them. They are alive.
Marlon James is freed somewhat by having chosen entirely fictional characters, but manages, oddly, to be less inventive. His narrator is, one assumes, supposed to be surprising, but feels less original, less insightful than Mantel’s narrator. The main character, Lilith, comes closest to full roundness, but, ultimately, I did not find her convincing. She felt like she was being directed to make a point, rather than acting and feeling naturally. I am all for characters being subject to authorial control, but they must be controlled convincingly. Homer and the other supporting characters have the same problem Lilith has. To the extent their actions are convincing, they tend not to surprise. To the extent surprising, they tend not to convince. Homer’s personality, her revealed motivations, her intelligence, and her actions do not combine in a convincing fashion. The legs are not all the same length; her character wobbles.
This probably sounds like a slam of The Book of Night Women, but it is not meant to be. I did find the book entertaining and worth reading. However, a comparison to Wolf Hall demonstrates precisely how short of perfection it comes. Wolf Hall is not perfection, but it is sufficiently close to act as a measuring stick for The Book of Night Women. One of these is a lasting monument of literature, the other is a very good book.
Wolf Hall must win.