TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Lacuna

A recap of how these two books made it to the Finals may not be particularly instructive, but it is entertaining.

The Lacuna struggled somewhat in the opening round against Fever Chart. Alexander Chee “didn’t really love either novel.” He felt The Lacuna was “an important book”, so he sent it through. Wolf Hall had a more difficult time with Logicomix than, perhaps, expected, as both novels “rank among the best books [Judge David Gutowski has] read in years.” I bet both Chee and Gutowski go for Wolf Hall.

In the Quarterfinals, The Lacuna was matched with Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows. I thought Shamsie’s work should have advanced, but Jane Ciabattari was tapped to make the call. While, in the prior round, Chee felt that Kingsolver “sucked the air out” of her central metaphor by naming the book after it and going to the lacuna once too often, Judge Ciabattari enjoyed “a razzle-dazzle sleight of hand that deepens the meaning of the title.” Kamila’s work left singed. Wolf Hall faced one of the best books in the Tournament, both by my standards and, it would appear, by the standards of Meave Gallagher. She started with a bias toward Wolf Hall and its historical setting, but truly appreciated Nicholas Baker’s work. Judge Gallagher chose “the big, awesome book with the big, awesome plot” where everything about the book was “pretty fantastic.” I would guess both judges stick with their Second Round selection.

I thought The Lacuna was done for in the Semifinals. Let the Great World Spin was already the winner of a top-flight prize and people seemed really to think it was very good, though I have not read of many who love it. Jason Kottke was wowed by The Lacuna‘s cover, so it advanced. Wolf Hall also had a cover that pleased its Semifinal judge, so it knocked out The Book of Night Women without raising a flap. If they stick to covers, it is impossible to predict which they will prefer. I predict they split, though how, I have no idea.

The Zombie Round stands out for the quality judging. The Lacuna faced first round loser Miles From Nowhere and had difficulty landing a knockout punch. Despite the fact that “both books probably gave [Judge Sam Anderson] the same net pleasure”, The Lacuna overcame its irritating characteristics to win Judge Anderson’s vote and a birth in the Finals. Wolf Hall meanwhile, demonstrated why it is the clear favorite. Where The Lacuna struggled with Fever Chart, Wolf Hall dominated it. For Judge Julie Powell, “the choice couldn’t be clearer.” “[A]t the end of [Wolf Hall‘s] 532 pages, [she]’d not have snipped anything at all.” Judges Anderson and Powell are two solid Wolf Hall votes.

The Lacuna has not had an easy time in any of its matches. Most of the decisions, to the extent they addressed the actual book between the covers, have given plenty of space to the novel’s irritants and shortcomings. Wolf Hall, on the other hand, won over all of its judges, just as it won over me. Wolf Hall has to be considered a heavy favorite in this Championship Match. And for good reason. It is the better book.

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel makes very few missteps, all minor. Kingsolver’s work, in contrast, is more memorable for its mistakes or questionable authorial choices, than for its brilliance. I expect a large blowout. Given my prediction of a 6-2 advantage for Wolf Hall among judges who have already rendered a verdict on one of the books in a previous round, I still like my pre-Tournament prediction of a 14-3 Finals romp by Wolf Hall. The Lacuna will be lucky to come closer than that.

[Update: Boy was I off. The Finals were a thriller. Among the judges who had previously rendered an opinion, I was wrong about Alexander Chee and Meave Gallagher (both went for The Lacuna)

But I was right about David Gutowski (Wolf Hall), Jane Ciabattari (The Lacuna), Jason Kottke/Andrew W.K. (they split), Sam Anderson (Wolf Hall), and Julie Powell (Wolf Hall).

These judges split 4-4, mirroring the closeness of the full panel. I am a bit surprised. I found Kingsolver’s The Lacuna tedious and too earnest. I did not like the narrator and was not intrigued by the plot. I realize some did not like the depth of Mantel’s detail, but overall I thought the characters were more interesting and more full. I guess it goes to show the importance whims of taste play in these types of comparisons. Still, I am happy to be aligned with Sam Anderson and Julie Powell, the two best judges of this year’s TOB. Congrats, Ms. Mantel!

Stay tuned for the announcement of my 2010 TOB Contest winners.]

10 Responses to TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Lacuna

  1. Hi Kerry, I have not read any of the books in this TOB, but it was great fun following it from your site. If you decide to do the same thing again next year I will definitely be here again.

  2. Kerry says:


    Thank you. I am glad you had fun. I always enjoy the TOB, even when the judges render less than perfect decisions. Besides, I think the best book did ultimately win.

    I hope to do be around covering the Tournament again next year. In the meantime, come back often….new reviews are on the way.

  3. […] HW: Abandoned 3/4 through – “I found Kingsolver’s The Lacuna tedious and too earnest. I did not like the narrator and was not intrigued by the plot.” […]

  4. Kerry: I had to haul this post up with Lacuna winning the Orange Prize. You abandoned it and I refused to start it — which shows how out of touch we two are :-). As one of the few who did not love Wolf Hall (which I did finish, I might say) I’m not surprised that the jury decided to recognize something else. I am surprised that Lacuna was the choice, but I guess that confirms the opinion of all the TOB judges who voted for it in what was a very close final round. Perhaps you and I could recuit Trevor (and maybe Lee Monks) and off the Curmudgeons’ Prize?

  5. okay, that should say “offer” not “off” in the last line, although the notion of “offing” the Curmudgeons’ Prize has some appeal.

  6. Kerry says:


    Thanks for reminding me of my horrible prognostications. I apparently am out of touch. I was just looking at the Orange Prize shortlist the other day and actually thought, “Please don’t pick The Lacuna. I did think, with all the awards Wolf Hall has received, another book might get picked. I just did not think and did not want it to be Kingsolver’s. Harumpf.

    I love the idea of the Curmudgeons’ Prize, whether we off it or offer it. It is an excellent idea. Surely we can manage between three or four of us to scratch together a chicken…

  7. Kerry: My going-in opinion to the Orange was exactly the same. As is my coming-out. Perhaps someone in comments will tell us where we are wrong.

    Rather than a chicken, I’d suggest we award a “seafood melange”. I’m sure you could come up with a softshell CRAB. I would be happy to contribute a Prairie Oyster (for those who do not know the west, that is a by-product of when young would-be bulls are turned into steers — quite tasty actually). I’m sure Trevor could come up with a New Jersey eel or something like that. We could offer the prize and the winner could tell us to, you know, off with it.

  8. Follow-up note. Of course, if Lee Monks chose to join us he would be expected to contribute a monkfish — like the prairie oyster, tasty, but not something you want to look at when it arrives at the door.

  9. Kerry says:

    A “seafood melange” would be perfect. We do have crabs here. I mean the edible, crustacean kind.

    As for Prairie Oysters, we called them mountain oysters. I don’t know why. I never tried them, but I do remember one scene rather vividly.

    My father (and his father) raised beef cattle. Usually, my father, my uncles, my brother, my cousins, the other farm workers, and I would round up the cattle and separate the steers-to-be. Once the victim was caught in the headgate, I would twist the often shit-smeared tail to keep the poor thing from kicking while my father or an uncle would do the cutting. The testicles were not saved. However, for some reason, probably because most of my uncles had moved on to other employment and there were fewer farmhands, my father hired a crew to come in and handle the task. I watched as, in a few efficient motions, the man with the knife slit the sack, squeezed out the testicles, and tossed them in a frying pan.

    I declined a taste of the very fresh “oysters”. I sort of regret my squeamishness now.

    So when are we doing giving out the first award? 2010? 2011?

  10. Kerry: I had no idea that you had such personal experience. I’ll admit that I only tried them twice.

    Maybe if we could figure out appropriate criteria a Curmudgeons’ Award could be scheduled for the end of year when the blogging world seems to slow down a bit.

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