Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I contemplated not writing a post about Wolf Hall because I liked it so much and found it so incredibly wonderful that I know I really can’t convey my admiration for it or communicate the sheer enjoyment I derived from this book. I’ve decided to share my thoughts anyway because part of the purpose of blogging is to spread the news about our favorite reads, right?

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power during the reign of Henry VIII.  Mantel’s Cromwell is charismatic, mysterious, brutish, surprisingly kind, intelligent, manipulative, and has a remarkable ability to see into the human heart. He’s an amazingly complex man and I marveled with each turn of the page as another facet of his character was revealed.

This book is all about character. Historical events are the prism through which we see the decisions and motivations of each major player but they seem fuzzy, a backdrop to a study of human behavior. If you are not a reader who enjoys dissecting the motivations of people or who constantly wonders why someone would make a certain decision or be attracted to a certain person, this book will probably drive you crazy. The plot is there for sure, chugging along, but the real focus is the people.

The characters are almost too human, just as changeable, frightening and maddening as people we know in real life. King Henry is like a child one day, the next a tyrant. Anne Boleyn (my unfortunate namesake) is vengeful, yet lives in fear and finds comfort in her association with the accommodating Cromwell. A majority of the characters operate out of fear; fear of dying, fear of disease,  fear of losing love or fear of losing their influence and power. Even Thomas More is portrayed as going to his death because of his fear of losing face if he signed the King’s Oath.

Because the narrative doesn’t undertake to explain the historical events at all, it is almost a requirement that the reader is somewhat knowledgeable about the period of English history it covers. You don’t have to know it in depth, however; a basic understanding of the events surrounding the divorce of Henry and Katherine of Aragon and Henry’s marriage and relationship to Anne Boleyn will suffice. There were many aspects of the story I had forgotten, but I remembered the gist of it once I started reading. Even if you don’t remember, you can always Google it.

I loved the glimpse Mantel gives into everyday life during the sixteenth century. The clothes, the food, the living arrangements, and even the interior design are all discussed and made part of the story, just as important to these people as they are to us. I think Mantel truly succeeded in bringing the period and the people so vibrantly to life that I was sad when the book ended right after Thomas More’s execution.

The book is written in the limited third-person point of view (I had to look that up) and it was off-putting the first few times I tried to read it, but you eventually get used to the style. Mantel’s writing is very descriptive, colorful and funny and the world she re-creates is so alive and believable that I feel I know what it was like to live in Cromwell’s household.

I didn’t want to like this book. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, the same year that The Little Stranger and The Children’s Book were shortlisted and I was peeved that it had taken the prize over those two splendid and treasured books. Now I see that it was entirely worthy of the honor and I am thrilled to bits that a second book in the Cromwell trilogy is coming in May. I have already pre-ordered it on Amazon and am hoping that Bring Up the Bodies will be as wonderful as Wolf Hall. I read an interview with Mantel where she explained that the new book will be shorter and intensely focused on the story of Anne Boleyn’s fall. I can’t wait to live in Cromwell’s household again.

12 comments / Add your comment below

  1. This is the first full review I’ve read, and you certainly make it sound like a great read ! The Tudor period is such a complex, fascinating, time to read about. I love it that we have pictures of the people – that helps make history come alive for me – and it sounds like that’s what Mantel does with this book.

  2. Well you’ve convinced me to bump it up my reading queue, I’ve been avoiding my copy for a couple of years now, just because of the size of it. I’m also planning on reading Anna Karenina soon as I was supposed to read it last year.

    BTW – I always wondered if Anbolyn is your real name – there can’t be many of you about!

    1. Once I got started, it didn’t seem long at all. It was a fast read for me because I was so fascinated by it. Anna Karenina is also turning out to be really good.
      I’ve never met another person named Anbolyn, but I’ve heard it is a popular name in the Philippines!

  3. I must be the only person not to like this book maybe I should read it again at some time at the time I read it I was rushing through it to get it done for booker ,I did enjoy her obvious love of the subject and it showed i n how well researched the book seem to be ,all the best stu

    1. I can see how you wouldn’t like it. I started it several times before I finally got into it. I think it might just take the right mood to feel like it is the right book.

  4. I usually enjoy books about the Tudor period but for some reason this one has never sounded very appealing to me. Your post has convinced me that I should probably give it a try. Thomas Cromwell has been portrayed very negatively in other historical fiction novels I’ve read but it sounds like he does have some redeeming qualities in this book.

    1. Helen, he is a very complex and riveting character in Wolf Hall. I liked that Mantel made him human and not so much a monster. I think you might like Wolf Hall if you love the Tudor period, but it is a hard book to get into at first.

Thank you for reading and commenting.

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