Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

When I first received my copy of this book, I was a little daunted by it. I’d hear it was “literary”—whatever that means—plus, it’s written in the present tense, which I usually detest in a novel. But the more I read this book, the more I liked it. It’s really hard to do this kind of expansive novel justice, so I’m going to try my best to describe why I liked it so much.

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and diplomat, who spent many years in the service of Henry VIII, eventually helping the king secure his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Everyone with even a passing knowledge of English history knows the story of Henry and his six wives, and the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon; and countless novels have been written about him. For a long time I was all “Tudored” out, because all fiction about the period seemed to be derivative. Wolf Hall breaks the mold by not being another bodice-ripper/romance, and telling Henry’s story from a different perspective. Its subject matter is a little more serious, but not so much that it drags the story down.

It’s a well-written novel; and though the politics of the time period are confusing, Mantel presents them in a way that would interest even the casual reader. I’d never known much about Cromwell, and it was intriguing to me to read a fictional account of him. I also found his sarcasm and cynicism wonderful—and amazing, for someone living and working with Henry (and I also loved Cromwell’s nicknames for people; he calls the princess Mary “the talking shrimp” and Thomas Wriothsley “”Call me Risley”).

It’s a slow read; it took me the better part of a week to complete, but in the end the effort was worth it. For a novel that’s focused on someone whose entire life focused on the king, the king appears surprisingly little. It’s this unusual approach to the Tudors that makes this such an appealing novel. Mantel’s excessive use of pronouns can be confusing, though you can probably assume that most of the time “he” refers to Cromwell himself. Also, I didn't really understand the significance of the title, since Wolf Hall doesn't play much of a role in this book. Still, this was the kind of book that I couldn’t stop reading; the kind of book that really gets you engrossed in a time and place.

Also reviewed by: The Literate Housewife, As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves, Medieval Bookworm, Tanzanite's Shelf, Shelf Love


Jen said...

I have a hold on this at the library and I'm really excited to read it, thanks for the review!

nishitak said...

Thanks for the review, it gives a good picture of what to expect from the book. I definitely look forward to reading it :)

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

Sounds great; I love getting completely wrapped up in a novel.

Gwendolyn B. said...

I'm looking forward to spending some time with this book! Thanks for your thoughts.

Alyce said...

I've been wondering about this one. I added it to my wish list after reading the description somewhere. Sometimes the books that I have to put a little more effort into are the ones I end up appreciating more. It's nice to hear that it's engrossing.

S. Krishna said...

I can't wait to read this one. Thanks for the review.

Two cats, a dog, and their girl said...

I'm so glad I read your review before diving in, simply because your hint about "he" usually referring to Cromwell has helped me keep my head straight.

I'm somewhere just past page 300 and agree that it's a very engaging read!

2manybooks2littletime said...

I'm about halfway through right now, and I really enjoyed reading your review. You had many of the same observations I'm making - the confusing pronouns, the different perspective... It's a relief to read that you found the investment of time worthwhile, because it DOES take time to get through. I've enjoyed what I've read so far, and now I can rest easy that it will all pay off!

Micaella Lopez said...

Took a while to get in to it (in fact, I started it several times), but well worth it when I gave it chance. Very interesting, moving, unexpectedly funny and quite beautifully written. I finished it and immediately bought the sequel, which I am now 1/3 the way through.

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