When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.
By Hilary Mantel
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 opposes 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?
Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall is a book of contradictions. It is informative, but takes liberties. It is sent in the past, but half written in present tense. It creates beautiful dialog but also jarring prose. It is an interesting experiment in historical fiction, and one that helps to show a different side of the reign of Henry VIII, but one that has some flaws none-the-less.
Because my reviews tend to focus on the good aspects first, I’m going to switch things up this time and talk immediately about what I didn’t like- the confusing prose. The present-tense narration, the frequent use of the pronoun “he,” and the fact that at least 6 of the more major characters are named Thomas creates a plot that is, on occasion, hard to follow. This is a book about succession and politics, and thus a great deal of it is told through conversations which I frequently had to backtrack through so that I could figure out either who was talking or who was being referred to. While the prose pattern grew on me over time, I don’t think it did much to help the narrative overall.
What I did enjoy? Some of the phrasing itself, which was at times incredibly amusing in just how snarky it was: “At New Year’s he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people.”
Additional enjoyment came in the actual plot behind the strange prose. Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of the novel, was a real life figure who has often been maligned in both history and fiction (A Man for All Seasons, Showtime’s The Tudors, etc.)
Mantel takes a different spin on his story, showing Cromwell as a more sympathetic character- a family man with a lot of smarts who does what he has to do to survive in a royal court overflowing with political and religious intrigue.
The primary narrative runs from 1527-1534, smack in the middle of Henry VIII’s troubles with the Catholic Church, his divorce with Katherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Ann Boleyn. It is a story that covers topics like sex and war, but shows them from the angle of those who handled the events and scandals. While that may sound boring and void of action, it was actually very interesting to dive into all of the different plots and parties and see how they either succeeded or fell horrifically apart.
Wolf Hall wasn’t the easiest book to read, but it was ultimately a satisfying work of historical fiction and a new spin on a familiar story. I look forward to reading its follow up, Bring Up The Bodies, as well as Mantel’s third installment upon its release.
Summary from Goodreads