I should have put Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel on my 2013 TBR pile challenge list–then I’d have one book checked off! Wolf Hall has been on my TBR list since it came out and on my bookshelf since 2010. My husband, who rarely reads fiction, was intrigued by all he kept hearing about it and actually read it before I did. He wrote a guest post for me back in January 2011. At that time, I imagined I’d get to it soon. I don’t know why, but the book kept dropping down my priority list.
And then, my historical fiction/history book club chose it for our next meeting. Finally! A deadline! I read the book.
Hilary Mantel tells us the story of Henry VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn, but he tells it from the perspective of the man who is to become the second most powerful man in the kingdom: Thomas Cromwell.
The son of a n’er-do-well blacksmith, Thomas Cromwell leaves home at a young age to make his way in the world, and make it he does. He enters the service of Cardinal Wolsey, serving him faithfully, even when Wolsey’s break with the king (and Anne) means his ruin. Wolsey is ruined, but Cromwell lands on his feet and transfers his loyalty to the king (and to Anne.)
Cromwell is a man you want working on your side. Not only is he loyal, but he’s hardworking and clearly the most brilliant man in the kingdom. Whatever needs doing, he’ll get it done–even something as impossible as ending King Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine to pave the way for the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.
Wolf Hall is a marvelously detailed work of historical fiction. Mantel teases out the political, religious, economic, and interpersonal period details so that you end up with a very broad (if one-sided) view of Henry’s court from 1500 to 1535. Cromwell is a fascinating character to choose as the protagonist (despite or because of the awkward third person narrative voice) because he had a finger in every pot. Cromwell can certainly inform the reader what is going on in England. Moreover, the moral ambiguity of his character adds a great deal of depth to the read. I can admire his many skills, but what, exactly, are his goals? Is it mere ambition driving him? Desire for vengeance? Wealth? Is it only the desire to serve his master–to prove himself? Is it that he craves the reward of having his talent recognized by those who want to believe themselves "above" him? He can be kind and introspective in one passage and in the next, ruthless and fatalistic.
Wolf Hall is, of course, a worthwhile read for historical fiction fans and for anyone who would like to know more about the Tudors. But I can’t honestly say that it was an easy read, or that I was engrossed. The novel had slipped down my priority list in part because of its reputation for being a "doorstop." I have the hardcover and it looks like a time-sink. In fact, it’s 532 pages, and the print is a reasonable font size, not tiny. So it isn’t a daunting book when you actually open it up and look at it. But, for me, it read like a much longer book. Mantel uses a very carefully crafted style that means you’ll have to concentrate while you’re reading. I often had to read passages more than once to figure out who was speaking or what character was being discussed. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to make your readers slow down and pay attention to what you’re saying. There’s a lot of sly humor sprinkled through the book that I might have missed if I were reading along at my usual pace. But, Wolf Hall was the longest 500 page book that I’ve enjoyed that I’ve ever read.
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