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