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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Harper Collins
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 608
How I Read It: Free copy received from the publisher – The views expressed in my review are mine alone and I have received no compensation for these opinions.
My Rating: 4.5 Crowns

Synopsis: England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster.  If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war.  Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn.  The pope and most of Europe oppose him.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition.

But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous.  Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

*Synopsis taken from the back of the book

My Review: As a huge Tudor enthusiast, I've been interested in reading Wolf Hall for awhile.  A lot of historical fiction seems to be written about the women of Tudor England, so something about one of the men of the period intrigued me.  Add to that my fascination with Thomas Cromwell in general and you've got a book made for someone like me.

Those reading this review are hopefully already familiar with the events of this period.  If not, I will say that I may spoil some things for you, so you may want to stop reading.  However, if you already know about the major points of the story of Anne Boleyn, you'll already be aware of what's coming within the scope of this novel.  Either way, consider yourself warned!

Coming in at just over 600 pages, this is a hefty novel, and a big commitment for those who don't know much about these people.  As someone in the book says, half the world seems to be named Thomas, so to avoid that confusion, people are often referred to by their title.  If you don't know who Norfolk, Suffolk, Rochford, Wiltshire, etc. are, you'll find yourself looking them up often.  To add to the confusion, they're not always referred to that way - sometimes Mantel uses their surname instead of, or in addition to, their title.  Fortunately for me, I have spent a ton of time pouring over these kinds of details, so I knew pretty well who these people were already.  If you don't, I would say keep the computer handy so you can ask Wikipedia who you're dealing with.

This entire novel is dealing with Cromwell's life and perspective on the things that were happening around him.  The first chapter or so deals with his early life in Putney, but quickly skips to sometime in his adult when he is working for Cardinal Wolsey.  We get to see Wolsey's downfall through Cromwell's eyes, which made it rather difficult depending on how you feel about the Cardinal.  From there, we see Cromwell's spectacular rise to being essentially the most influential man in the kingdom at the time.

To me, the whole story is remarkable.  Throughout the novel, various nobelmen bring up Cromwell's low birth, as I'm sure they did in life as it was happening.  It was so rare for someone to come from nothing, with no noble to speak for him, and end up being the King's right hand man in so many situations.  Although the story itself is fictionalized, the overall events taking place are not, and an insight into this incredible man was nothing short of amazing for me.

One thing that did make it difficult at times was that it was a bit hard to tell who was speaking, or even if they said something aloud or simply in their head.  There were times that I had to reread sections to be able to figure out who said what.  In the scheme of the whole story, this wasn't too big of a complaint, but it was still a bit annoying to me at times.

The book follows Cromwell after Wolsey's downfall through his handling of the King's Great Matter - that is, his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and ultimate marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Katherine has a presence in the novel, but because we join her story while she's already basically been cast aside, we don't have as many interactions with her.  However, Anne is all over this book, and I loved that.  Anne Boleyn is one of my favorite historical figures, so the fact that she was portrayed in a fair light went a long way for me.  So many authors like to take the easy road of making Anne into a mean woman, but Mantel manages to convey that Anne was really just making the best of her situation.  It was especially interesting to see her interactions with Cromwell, and I'm sure this does a lot to set up the events of the following novel.

The end of the novel coincides with the trial and end of another famous figure, Sir Thomas More.  There are a lot of interactions between Cromwell and More, two men on opposite sides of this massive event, each with very interesting beliefs and convictions.  Something that I found interesting was that there wasn't a lot of discussion of how Cromwell felt about these situations.  He had to have felt something at the time, but in several situations Mantel has him thinking that what he feels, or believes, hardly matters given his role in the world.  As such, we're given insight into his actions, and how he deals with the people around him, but not with his emotions.  This may grate on some people, but I found it interesting because the sentiment is correct - he's there to do his job for Henry VIII, not talk about his feelings about that job.  Cromwell is consistently portrayed as a fair man, trying to do the best by the people he comes in contact with, even if his ultimate role in their life is to bring about their downfall.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book a lot and I'm sorry I didn't get to it years ago.  I'm betting any fan of historical fiction dealing with the events during the reign of Henry VIII will enjoy it.

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Kailana said...

I seriously have to get around to this book. I have owned it for ages!

Bookworm1858 said...

I definitely had trouble keeping track of all the names and characters-they need more different kinds of names! This reminds me that I need to read the sequel now.

Crystal - Princess of Pop Culture said...

@Kailana - It was definitely worth the read, I recommend picking it up soon!

@Bookworm1858 - I agree, if someone wasn't a Thomas back then they were probably a William, Henry, or Edward. I intend to read the sequel soon as well :)