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4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A character study rather than a story, 23 Sep 2010
This review is from: Wolf Hall (Paperback)
Thomas Cromwell was a man of humble beginnings who managed, in a time when the divide between the nobility and Everyone Else was as stark as a razor's edge, to become chief adviser to Henry VIII and chief lawmaker of England.

This period and Cromwell form the subject matter of Wolf Hall, Booker Prize winning novel and, for me, a bit of a disappointment.

It's not the writing. Almost every other sentence contains a phrase I would kill to have thought of myself. Mantel summons up characters which live and breathe across the void of centuries, and manages to give a new perspective to people who are so familiar to us, they are almost icons. Henry the king becomes a man whose emotional limitations make him by turns, easy to manipulate and very, very dangerous, while Anne Boleyn is less a victim than a smart operator who underestimates the can of worms she has opened when she decides she wants to be Henry's wife, not his mistress.

Which makes Wolf Hall sound like no more than a soap opera, but that's where I felt its weakness lies. Mantel has pulled out all the stops to achieve a fresh contemporary feel to what could become a slightly turgid saga what with all the diplomatic and religious wrangling which accompanied Henry's decision to dump his first wife. She uses the present tense. She puts us in Cromwell's head by the deft device of using third person (which is harder to mess up than first person) but staging every event strictly from his point of view. She has her characters say things like, "this is London - what town are you living in?" which livens up the prose without stretching the period feel too far. But she tries too hard to keep us engaged, and that means leaving out the bigger picture. This was a truly revolutionary time in England's history. Henry literally broke the Christian faith in two at a point when people fervently believed that the wrong kind of worship meant an eternity of torment in Hell. Cromwell sails through all of this without giving the matter so much as a second's thought. His main preoccupation is with the events of the past: old loves, his abusive father, the loss of his young family and with the future of his household of waifs and strays, collected along his passage through the corridors of power. Cromwell as portrayed by Mantel is not Cromwell as he must truly have been: ruthless and manipulative to the bottom of his soul, a man who seized the opportunity to escape the shackles of his station by becoming Henry's political hit-man. The 16th century equivalent of Alastair Campbell, perhaps.

So I felt entertained by Wolf Hall, but also a little cheated, because it really is more of a character study than a true story and that, however exquisitely written, has its limits.
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Feb 2013 13:58:43 GMT
Cathy T says:
I totally agree with this review. I slogged my way through the book, with gritted teeth. At the end, among other criticisms, I felt that Mantel had not put together a convincing portrait of Cromwell. As has been mentioned, this was an era when people feared eternal damnation in a fiery hell-hole, yet there was nothing in the book that indicated the thought-processes of Cromwell about this possible fate. On the one hand, Mantel paints a picture of Cromwell as a loving family man (which he may have been, for all I know). On the other hand, his actions were ruthless, and seemingly simply to please a tyrant, Henry VIII. Henry was motivated by a desire to have his own way, and to secure his dynasty, for which purpose he devised excuses to murder some of his wives and formerly loyal courtiers, to dispossess the monasteries and take their cash and to split from Rome and implement religious persecution (having previously earned the title Defender of the Faith from the Pope, for some cringe-worthy sycophancy). I did not understand what made Cromwell tick, from this book. Wolf Hall was also excruciatingly boring at times, though clearly the author is very clever and able to write some brilliant passages.
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