Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2 July, 2012

I don’t know why but I’d been avoiding reading anything by Hilary Mantel for a while. It’s possibly because I had mistakenly equated her with a novelist of a similar name whom I had read almost 20 years ago and to whose book I took a dislike. And so you can understand why I want to bash my head against the wall because I have finally read Wolf Hall, almost three years since it won the Man Booker Prize, and I rue that I didn’t get to it earlier. For Wolf Hall is glorious.

We all know the story of the Tudor king, Henry VIII, husband of six wives (two divorced, two executed, one dying at childbirth, one survivor) and father of Queens ‘bloody’ Mary and Elizabeth I ‘the Virgin Queen’. And we’ve probably seen the HBO costume drama The Tudors with the dashing Suffolk. But I don’t think I’ve come across a historical novel that tackles weighty history with such vitality, immediacy and sensuality. I’m a huge fan of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries but this is a different sort of book altogether. There’s hardly any sex, except behind closed doors, not much swearing, and yet there’s so much action and thought that you feel you are right there living with Thomas Cromwell.

Because Mantel brings Thomas Cromwell alive, from the first scene where he is savagely beaten by his father Walter, to his return to London, a married man with a mission to succeed. Mantel teases out the story of Cromwell’s rise from a blacksmith’s son to become the second most powerful man in England after the King. His friendship and enmity with some of the most powerful men in the kingdom, his closeness to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, the impact of his fall, his carefully constructed relationships with the Boleyns and Norfolk. It’s all history that we know, and yet Mantel injects a freshness to the story. Because here is Cromwell, not just an acute statesman, but also a family man who loves his wife and children, looks after his wards and trains them to become self-sufficient, well-rounded adults with a living.

What I loved most was Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell as a calculating man. The way he breaks down the power structure of Tudor England by knowing exactly what everything is worth and how he uses his knowledge of accountancy and the law as a catalyst to rise up the hierarchy. There was less of the evil plotting that we are so accustomed to seeing, but more of an everyday survival strategy at work here. Mantel certainly knows how to make such a public and powerful figure appear ordinary, like someone you or I could know.

This is the first book in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. We meet Cromwell as a young boy about to run away from an abusive father. Then he returns, grown into a man with experience in fighting, soldiering, business and finance. And we see how he turns the misfortunes of his master, Thomas Wolsey, into something he can work with. How he turns the mistrust of Anne Boleyn as he formulates a strategy to make her Queen and to release Henry VIII from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and Papal rule.

Wolf Hall is a big book in every way. It’s size, it’s content, the robust nature of the story and prose and yet it is a thrilling read. I loved it all. And what a clever move to call the novel Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family, a place that is yet to be visited in the novel.

22 Responses to “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel”

  1. This is one of the most amazing books i have read 🙂 I loved your review of it.
    Please do check out my review of wolf hall at http://riversihaveknown.com/wolf-hall-by-hilary-mantel-a-review/

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    Now I am in the small number that hated this book is is just boring I read it and yes historical great just not grabbed by the characters ,I was gutted when it won the booker ,all the best stu

    • sakura Says:

      You are indeed, although there have been lots of criticisms about her use of pronouns! I love historical novels and this is one of the best I’ve read;)

  3. I loved this book when I read it last year. I was a little thrown off by the usage of “he” for everyone, but once I figured it out, I was fine. I thought it was an incredible story. I can’t wait to read the second one “Bring Up the Bodies” that just came out.

  4. aartichapati Says:

    Yayayayay! I’m so glad you picked this one up and that you enjoyed it as much as you did. Now, of course, there’s Bring Up the Bodies to read 🙂 And I HIGHLY recommend A Place of Greater Safety, too. So, so good!

    • sakura Says:

      Now I want to read everything by Mantel! I did check out A Place of Greater Safety (about the French revolution, right?) Puts me in mind of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens:)

  5. Mel u Says:

    I really want to read this book and the next one in the series very soon. Even more so after reading your great review

  6. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I also just picked it up this year. It does seem like an intimidating book at first, given the topic and genre, but readers are in for for a surprise when they discover how vastly amusing and entertaining it is.

  7. Great review and now have all her other books to read!

  8. Arti Says:

    I got this from a book sale. Now it’s in my TBR box(es). But thanks to your review, I’ll just need to movie it ahead on the list. Thanks for the detailed write-up.

  9. I’m so glad you liked this too. I adored this book, and Cromwell! How wonderful is it that we have another 2 books to get along with!

  10. Nish Says:

    I must be the only book blogger on this planet not to have read her book. I have read so many books that are unflattering to Cromwell that it seems difficult to believe that he could actually be a nice person.

    But, considering the second book in the trilogy is also very highly regarded, I must give it a go.

    Do you have any thoughts on the accuracy of this portrayal of Cromwell or the history even? I guess that because this book won the Booker, a lot of historical research has gone into it.

    • sakura Says:

      I’m a huge fan of historical fiction and although I’m not too picky, if some detail doesn’t fit right, you know. And with Mantel’s book, I think she’s done enough research to not have to rely too much on it and use it as a base for her story which is the best bit of her book. So yes, you must read it! It’s brilliant!

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