Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Fourth Estate/Harper Collins 2009

Winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction 2009

Synopsis: England in the 1520's 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. The quest for the petulant king's freedom destroys his advisor, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacum and a deadlock. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell........

If I had some misgivings before I began reading that this would be just another in the long line of Henry and Anne tales they were soon dispelled. Wolf Hall is a portrait of England at one of the most pivotal moments in its history, a rich and finely detailed tapestry of Tudor life written by an author who can create magic with words.

The central character is Thomas Cromwell - a true Renaissance man who rose from humble beginnings to become the King's trusted advisor. Flashbacks reveal the story of his childhood suffering at the hands of a drunken abusive father, his time as a mercenary soldier in France, a kitchen worker in Italy, learning the intricacies of banking in Florence and the wool trade in Antwerp. At 40 he "can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury."

'Try always to find out what people wear under their clothes' says Cardinal Wolsey.

That is what Ms Mantel allows the reader to do by not only seeing the world and its unfolding events through Thomas's eyes but also becoming privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings.
State affairs become interwoven with normal household affairs with as much attention to fine detail given to recipes and furnishings as there is to legal matters.

There is a great deal of conversation.........small talk and chatter that reveals the thoughts and opinions of not only the central cast but a diversity of passing characters like the Putney boatman who speaks of ' them ******* Bullens...........of Anne - an eel, a slippery dipper from the slime'

Between the lines of conversation come the thoughts . Easy to miss at first but something I began to watch closely for and one of the reasons why this book needs to be read at a very slow pace. What isn't being said is the truth of Thomas's feelings which he doesn't outwardly show.......joy and sorrow, often malicious but also very funny.

The title Wolf Hall is a constant reminder that we all know this story and we know how it will end. The home of the Seymour family , of the lady waiting in the wings , Jane Seymour.........'the sickly, milk faced creeper...........the girl who is always crying'.

'For it is a truth', says Cavendish 'that fortune is inconstant, fickle and mutable..'

Wolf Hall is brilliant writing and deserves the recognition it has received but it's not easy reading. Often it is difficult to figure out who is speaking and this can be confusing and would be even more so to anyone who doesn't have at least a little knowledge of this period even with the provided family trees and list of main characters. Not a book I could wholeheartedly recommend to anyone but definitely worthwhile reading.
Rating ****


  1. I have this book sitting on my TBR pile to read and am hoping to get to it before years end. Great review!

  2. Thanks Alaine.......I hope you enjoy it. Not an easy read but worthwhile.

  3. I recommend this book for its strong sense of history, its lyrical voice, its graceful story and it's ethereal mood. It's a scholarly work and an epic. Couldn't put it down.

    Highly recommended Allied Locksmiths