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Hilary Mantel at Wikipedia
Order Wolf Hall Here
Watch the Author Reading an Excerpt
INTRODUCTION: This year's Man Booker shortlist about which I did an earlier post turned out to contain several books of great interest to me including the eventual winner.
"Wolf Hall" by H. Mantel is historical fiction with strong sff associational ties in superb world building and deep immersion in a distant but also familiar universe. I found myself in complete agreement with noted sff critic and writer Adam Roberts' claim about "Wolf Hall": "if Mantel had tossed in a dragon or two, she'd have been a shoo-in for the British Fantasy Award", so unbelievably good is the recreation of 16th century England here.
While Ms. Mantel has written quite a few novels prior to this one, the only one I have previously read is the extraordinary "A Place of Greater Safety" about the life of an young man and his closest two friends who just happen to play an unexpectedly important role in history. I read the 750+ page "A Place of Greater Safety" several times across the years since its US publication in the mid-90's, most recently after finishing "Wolf Hall" this October and while "Wolf Hall" is clearly more accomplished as fiction, "A Place of Greater Safety" is still the more interesting one for me.
"Wolf Hall" stands at a more modest 550+ pages but in another sff tradition it is just the first part of a planned duology that follows the life and career of Thomas Cromwell the (in)famous minister of Henry VIII and architect of the English Reformation. "Wolf Hall" follows Thomas from his very unpromising beginning as the abused son of a violent village blacksmith to his rise in Chancellor Wolsey service and later in the king's council.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Since the Tudor era is not one of my main interests in history/historical fiction, I have waited for the US release and a chance to browse "Wolf Hall" before deciding if I want to read it. However the moment I opened it, I was hooked and I *had* to get it then and read from it in any free time I had. Because the novel is dense and relatively long, it took me several days to finish it, and while the last 100 pages are a bit too much of a filler for the next volume and should have been done in 50 maybe, the first 450 or so are almost perfect.
The novel alternates pov very frequently, switching from Thomas third person (usually denoted by "he") to various characters which are generally named ("Anne", "Wolsey") sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, so it requires constant attention.
The cast is panoramic though one surprise I had was the relative lack of centrality of Henry VIII, whom despite being the focus of so much of the attention of the characters, is present relatively less directly in the book, though some of the scenes with him are truly memorable.
Outside Thomas Cromwell who is an absolutely fascinating though still mysterious character - even after 550 pages - the main "historical" characters are Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, while we get less than a flattering picture of the "sainted" Thomas More who is busy burning heretics and using any means to obtain the necessary proofs for that. After all in More's vision a promise or even an oath to a heretic is not binding...
In contrast Cromwell is pragmatic and wants to advance himself and England, while he protects as much as he can the protestant inclined theologians, booksellers and printers. Also the family life of the two is sharply contrasted again in a surprising way at least from the usual conventional story we "know"...
Anne is less fascinating than I expected though she is believable as holding Henry's interest for so long and finally getting her wish of becoming Queen with Cromwell's help, wish that of course means the split with Rome since the only way Henry can get a divorce from Catherine the aunt of the powerful king of Spain and "jailer" of the Pope is by essentially granting one himself.
This passage which in many ways is the crucial one of the book at least for the political/religious action shows Cromwell at his best in helping Henry take the necessary decisive step:
"‘But why now?’ Henry says, reasonably enough. ‘Why does he come back now? I have been king for twenty years.’
He bites back the temptation to say, because you are forty and he is telling you to grow up. How many times have you enacted the stories of Arthur – how many masques, how many pageants, how many companies of players with paper shields and wooden swords? ‘Because this is the vital time,’ he says. ‘Because now is the time to become the ruler you should be, and to be sole and supreme head of your kingdom. Ask Lady Anne. She will tell you. She will say the same.’"But "Wolf Hall" is not only about politics and religion; there is a lot about "regular" people and their life in the 1520-30's London and the action of the book takes place all over England with sojourns in Italy, France and the Low Countries too.
I will close this review with another quote, this time from the very beginning of the novel and showing Thomas' "people skill" again at his best, while we can infer quite a lot about the world of the novel from it too:
"He sees three elderly Lowlanders struggling with their bundles and moves to help them. The packages are soft and bulky, samples of woollen cloth. A port officer gives them trouble about their documents, shouting into their faces. He lounges behind the clerk, pretending to be a Lowland oaf, and tells the merchants by holding up his fingers what he thinks a fair bribe. ‘Please,’ says one of them, in effortful English to the clerk, ‘will you take care of these English coins for me? I find them surplus.’ Suddenly the clerk is all smiles. The Lowlanders are all smiles; they would have paid much more. When they board they say, ‘The boy is with us.’
As they wait to cast off, they ask him his age. He says eighteen, but they laugh and say, child, you are never. He offers them fifteen, and they confer and decide that fifteen will do; they think he's younger, but they don't want to shame him. They ask what's happened to his face. There are several things he could say but he selects the truth. He doesn't want them to think he's some failed robber. They discuss it among themselves, and the one who can translate turns to him: ‘We are saying, the English are cruel to their children. And cold-hearted. The child must stand if his father comes in the room. Always the child should say very correctly, “my father, sir”, and “madam my mother”.’"
Highly, highly recommended and while "The Children's Book" (FBC Rv) still holds the sweet spot as my favorite book of 2009, "Wolf Hall" is arguably the best novel I read this year