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Wolf Hall Hardcover – 30 Apr 2009
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A magisterial new novel that takes us behind the scenes during one of the most formative periods in English history: the reign of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall is told mainly through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man who rose from a blacksmith's son in Putney to be the most powerful man in England after the king. The cast also includes Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Henry's other wives - and, of course, King Henry himself. It was a time when a half-made society was making itself with great passion and suffering and courage; a time when those involved in the art of the possible were servants to masters only interested in glorious gestures; a time when the very idea of social progress, and of a better world, was fresh, alien and threatening. It was a time of men who weren't like us, but who were creating us.
About the Author
Hilary Mantel is the author of thirteen books, including A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, BEYOND BLACK, and the memoir GIVING UP THE GHOST. Her two most recent novels, WOLF HALL and its sequel BRING UP THE BODIES, have both been awarded The Man Booker Prize – an unprecedented achievement.
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Wolf Hall is a book about Thomas Cromwell. It is told from his point of view, but not in the first person. This creates a narrative in which we see the world through Thomas’ eyes, be where he is, know something of what he knows, but we can also pull back and see him, asking questions of himself as he sorts out the lives of others. Thomas in this version is a ‘fixer’, the supreme pragmatist who does what has to be done to whoever needs sorting out. His memory is a blessing in this work, but a curse as he copes with the loss of his wife and daughters. The loss of his family haunts this book, as does his awareness of ghosts of the past, those who lived in a house before him, and Cardinal Wolsey’s enormous personality. He copes with the women of the court, Anne, Katherine, Mary and the others that serve them with caution and sometimes confusion, seeing them as another problem to solve as well as possible actors in his scenarios. King Henry is sometimes a child to be placated, an impossible, querulous dictator. Cromwell has his measure in this book, but remains under no illusions that he must proceed with caution to avoid potentially fatal confrontations.
This is not a perfect book. It takes its time to get anywhere, and sometimes gets bogged down under the weight of its constant thinking, reaction and action, plotting and planning. Yet it is a human book in its diverse progress, the tangents and confusions that we can understand. Life in this period could be and often was short and brutal, and this book shows us how and why. Mantel has said that she was keen to look at the events of Henry’s reign through other eyes than the wives, the King himself, the minor functionaries of court. Thomas Cromwell was the supreme fixer of problems and situations. This book shows you how and why, as well as the human thought processes behind his survival and success in a dangerous time.
A lot of other reviewers have complained the about the writing style, but I urge new readers considering picking this up not to let those complaints put you off. Mantell writes in present tense, using the the term "he" a lot. It takes a chapter or so to get used to this and learn a sense of who is actually speaking. But you soon learn; when Mantell refers to 'he', she is almost always referring to Cromwell. If you assume 'he' is Cromwell you'll get it right 98% of the time.
The story follows Cromwell episodically. Roughly, it covers the period from the fall of Wolsey in 1529 to 1535. Early chapters (episodes) jump backwards in time- Cromwell running away from home at fifteen in 1500, working with Wolsey in 1521, 1527 etc. The middle and later chapters remain episodic but do become more chronological.
You will fall in love with Cromwell a bit. He is an appealing character, intelligent and measured. Mantell shows us how he can be intimidating and dangerous to others, but we the reader are always on the inside, with Cromwell- we see his threat from his point of view.
There are no two dimensional characters. Henry is understandable and you develop empathy for him, rather than being the flat psychopath of other writers. Anne Boleyn is built up as a vile nutcase when spoken of by other characters, but in person with Cromwell is a more rounded character.
I cannot recommend this highly enough. If you want a taste of the Tudors this is magnificent. I would argue that it isn't a cheap and easy beach read, so don't pick it up for that. But neither is it War and Peace - it is not the challenging read it it built up to be
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