After reading quite a few novellas I fancied reading a big book that I could really get my teeth into. I bought a copy of Wolf Hall in the new year, curious to find out why it had won the Man Booker and spurred on by several great reviews. I also studied Tudor History at sixth form college so was interested to hear a new perspective on the period. So it was, that I settled down with my first Hilary Mantel novel with anticipation.
I’m not going to keep you in suspense – I can say straight away that I was seriously impressed with Wolf Hall! From the first chapter I was hooked by Mantel’s style. The personality of a young Thomas Cromwell exploded into life on the pages – a scruffy, roguish butcher’s boy beaten black and blue by his seemingly unhinged father he picks himself up and leaves his home town on a ship to France. His character is tough through necessity but smart – the boy and the man Cromwell learns from the mistakes of those around him. He is a Jack of all trades (lawyer, soldier, diplomat) and manages to master them all, able to make even the most difficult to persuade people to keep them near him for his usefulness, if not his odd kind of charm. His honest yet tactful approach and cleverness is what makes him first the companion of Cardinal Wolsey and later of course Henry VIII’s right hand man.
Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell is fascinating and believable because of the depth of which she explores his character. I really felt that she had completely imbued herself in the period. It was clear that she must have read so much source material in order to create the vision on the page. It seemed as if she was interlacing and descriptions of characters and words that they had used from letters and other documents that she had researched. However, this never felt laboured to me – she seamlessly pulled those images and words from source into the dialogue of characters or their descriptions.
The scope of the book is Thomas Cromwell’s early life through to when Anne Boleyn is crowned Queen of England and a few months after. The way that it is split into chapters is that the reader gets a very detailed focus on one point in time in which you feel almost as if the story is ‘realtime’ and you are right there watching events unfold and the interplays between characters vying for power. Whether it be because of court politics or illness, one of the key things that Wolf Hall conveyed to me was the transience of human life in the 16th Century and how brutal a world it was. If you were clever or brave enough (or stupid enough) to enter into court games, you had to be prepared for the consequences. And, even if you were rich, powerful and successful, your own life or that of someone you loved could be snatched away so easily.
I found the style in which the book is written unusual. It is not written in the first person, but at times it feels as if it is Cromwell’s voice and observations that you are hearing, or perhaps another close onlooker. This has the effect of giving the reader two perspectives. One is a birds’ eye view as the story unfolds, however more often than not the reader is dragged right into the thick of characters’ motives and conversations.
I found Wolf Hall a fascinating and absorbing novel. Mantel retells a familiar story from a completely different angle and creates something entirely new. It may not be a book for everyone. I don’t want anyone to say that I didn’t warn them that this is a detailed book with a multitude of characters to follow. This is, however, what also makes Wolf Hall incredibly involving and satisfying to read. The character of Thomas Cromwell is utterly brilliant – ridiculously smart and resilient. Morally grey at times but somehow admirable. Mantel has done an amazing job of bringing him to life and creating a hypercolour version of the Tudor era. She gives the reader a front row seat to one of History’s greatest dramas.
9 out of 10
Have you read Wolf Hall? What do you think makes a great work of historical fiction?