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Wolf Hall
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on 6 June 2017
How do you review a book that has been around for so long, been staged and on tv? I have recently reread this book for another project, and been overwhelmed by just how good it is, and how reluctant I was to finish it. My previous comments on it revolve largely around how long it took me to read it, how tricky it was to follow, and such like moans. It is still a long book, an undertaking to read, and requires a new mind set to appreciate the new view it offers of a time, place and people. Diana Athill wrote “I can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly creates a world.” As Middlemarch is a favourite of mine for its creation of a time, place and people, I can completely understand what she means.
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.
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on 26 December 2016
Absolutely engrossing. After a false start (when I found the first chapter too detailed), I tried WH again and loved it instantly - and I am a difficult reader to please. This goes to show that it can be as much the mood you are in, as the thing itself, which determines one's reaction. We are subjective beings after all.

As for the book! So many reviews already.

Wolf Hall is essentially a subtle case for the defence - portraying Cromwell as a man of integrity, but unwilling to throw his life (or anyone else's) away for the sake of a form of words, and not the unscrupulous monster of conventional history, a mere creature of Henry VIII.

The writing is exquisitly precise and fluid, perfectly matching the deeply imagined, strong character of Thomas Cromwell, which is suppuratingly powerful. His rational, highly intelligent, strategic and guarded character, underpinned by an acknowledged yet unconscious instinct (for love and survival - what else?) is brilliantly conveyed in every paragraph.

Mantel's strength is conversational duelling: Cromwell v Wolsey, Cromwell v Mary Boleyn, Cromwell v Henry VIII, Cromwell v Anne Boleyn, Cromwell v Thomas More, alongside revealing dialogue featuring many minor characters. I particularly relished the refreshingly direct parries between Cromwell and his honest, cut-throat French protege, Christophe.

As a work of fiction, WH is a moving meditation on the nature of human character, and its contingent motivations.

However, as a work of history, the book wilts under the greedy gaze of Holbein's famously unflattering portrait, which finds no echo in Mantel's blunt, brave, enlightened hero.

The novel's focus is almost entirely on relationships and domestic emotion, not surprisingly. Hence there is relatively little of the huge public policy labours of Cromwell - though the main issues (divorce, international relations, the dissolution of the monasteries and the seismic English Reformation) are brilliantly evoked in brief chiaroscuro flashes between characters.
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on 7 April 2016
I have just read this novel for the second time, and the experience has confirmed to me that it is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read. It is quite simply brilliant, a phenomenon - and through both the book and the TV series has succeeded in reviving the reputation of Thomas Cromwell.

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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 3 March 2018
The thing to remember when starting this book is that 99% percent of the time the pronoun 'he' refers to Cromwell, even at times when the sentence structure makes it seems like 'he' would be someone else. It took me a short while to realize this, but once I did, I was fine. You are in Cromwell's head; you see everything from his perspective. As he reacts to others' reactions to him (many times, he is bemused to see how he is thought of) another layer of characterization is added.

This novel is beautifully written with unique descriptions (I love when authors can pull that uniqueness off -- not easy to do!) sprinkled here and there; Cromwell is fascinating (and drawn sympathetically by Mantel) and even surprisingly charming in his interactions with family members and certain others. (Though that's not to say that he doesn't use some of these others either.) And he's funny! Though all of this is done, oh, so, subtly.

It's said that historical fiction is as much about the time during which it's written as it is about the time it's set in. And through Mantel's eyes, we see the similarities of the time periods' political intrigue, as messy and incestuous then as it is now. I thought I was done with Tudor historical fiction (I've read so much of it through the years) but this book is different.

You won't understand the novel's title until later in the book, and I won't explain it here, as I got excited (a rare emotion when reading) seeing the meanings unfold, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for anyone.

I also got very excited as I read this quote: (page 394) "Suppose within each book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives." I felt as if I had found the 'key' to the whole book.

This is one of those long novels that I loved living with and hated to see end, one of those experiences which causes you not to want to rush off to read something else, because you're still soaking in the one you've just finished.
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on 23 November 2016
I have read this book three times and at each reading wonder how I could have missed so much from before. The observation of characters and their thoughts and actions is acute and demonstrates how little we as humans change in our basic approach to life in general and other people in particular. I understand the frustration that others have noted regarding the text and the difficulty at times in following who is saying what. But this adds to the book's great charm for me as it affirms the uncertainty of the period and the fragile lives led by most of the characters which mostly seemed to hang by a thread. These people were driven along by whim and chance: the sickness that befell Cromwell's daughters aptly demonstrates this. I could only feel great sadness at the inevitability of their death as so sensitively handled by Hilary Mantel. But best of all is the brilliant handling of the character of Thomas Cromwell. This man lives out of the very pages of the book. I can almost see him as I read and his thoughts in most cases do him great credit. I am deeply impressed by his humanity and innate compassion for those he perceives to be honest in their endeavours. All that said, I know this is essentially a work of fiction (albeit based on historical fact) but for me the point is that it is a creation of a life that can be admired for all the things it tells us about the human spirit (good and bad)
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 March 2014
Absolutely wonderfully written look at the Tudor Court - not ,as usual, from the royal perspective, but from that of secretary Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a mysterious character, rising as he did from the son of a blacksmith to one of the most important men in England. Ms Mantel has crafted a kind of stream of consciousness novel, combining actual events with the thoughts and feelings inside his head - like other reviewers I found this a challenge to begin with, but it works to flesh out Cromwell as we follow his actions.
All set against the precarious world of Henry VIII's court, where the king may turn on you at any time:

'The cardinal says, do you think this is a tilting ground? Do you think there are rules, protocols, judges to see fair play? One day, when you are still adjusting your harness, you will look up and see him thundering at you downhill.'
Planning to read the sequel once I've had a breather!
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on 9 May 2015
Normally the fact that a book has won The Booker Prize would have me avoiding it like the plague. However, ever since I watched The Six Wives of Henry VIII on BBC as a child I have been fascinated by this period in English History so I decided to put my prejudices to one side and give it a go. I'm so glad I did because I thought it was absolutely terrific.

While it deals with the stories that are familiar to all of us from numerous films and TV series - the downfall of Wolsey & Thomas More, the rise of Anne Boleyn - it is so much more. It is a rich, detailed tapestry of how life was lived in Tudor times. I loved reading about how the great feasts were celebrated - the elaborate festivities at Christmas and Halloween. The images stayed with me - a boy dressed as an orange for Halloween, Cromwell's daughter's peacock feather wings for a Christmas masque. Instead of the usual focus on the nobility, this novel shone a light on the rich merchant class into which Cromwell had worked his way, a sophisticated cosmopolitan world of well traveled, multilingual men who were outward looking and progressive. Into the tapestry Mantel also weaves the myths and legends of England's prehistory, every bit of court gossip from the period that you've ever read about or seen in a film, every character who ever played a part in this familiar story. It's encyclopaedic & incredibly entertaining.

While the style of the writing does take a bit of getting used to it's not an insurmountable obstacle and I liked that it slowed me down, took me closer to the pace of the sixteenth century, gave me time to appreciate the detail.

In all the countless books and films devoted to this period Cromwell is almost always the bogey man, the bully in chief, a ruthless, heartless enforcer. It was a groundbreaking change to have him as the hero and as portrayed here he comes across as appealing - warm, practical, devoted family man and nurturing mentor to his many wards. Crucially, a huge part of his character is his unwavering devotion to his own mentor, Wolsey, even after Wolsey's fall from grace. Cromwell is always pragmatic but he will not abandon Wolsey or forgive those who have humiliated him. Thomas More also has a major part to play and again is written in a slightly different way. I've always thought him a chilly idealist, even when he's being portrayed sympathetically but here he's also a zealous inquisitor, needlessly ascetic & somewhat repellent. Cromwell's pragmatism, his warmth and his determination to keep himself and everyone belonging to him safe makes him the more appealing character.

It requires a little effort to get into this book but that effort will be rewarded. Wolf Hall is both interesting and hugely entertaining.
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on 24 May 2015
I listened to this on audio rather than reading it and I enjoyed the prose very much. However, there were many slips in time which made it difficult to keep focus on the overall timeline, despite dates being given. I found it easier to get into the scenes themselves. Those which have remained with me – Thomas being beaten by his father at the beginning of the novel, endless attempts to get rid of Catherine of Aragon legally so that King Henry could marry Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell’s grief at what happened to Cardinal Wolseley, Thomas Cromwell’s grief at losing his wife Liz and his girls to the sweats (plague), the visit by Henry and Anne Boleyn to Italy before their marriage when the nun foretold they would not prosper, the descriptions of Anne pregnant and the realisation that Henry returned to Mary Boleyn whilst Anne was pregnant, the birth of Anne’s daughter, not a son.
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on 18 April 2015
Historical fiction has become my very favorite literary genre. I especially like to gobble up different versions of Anne Boleyn’s most tragic tale - Phillipa Gregory’s, Alison Weir’s, Robin Maxwell’s. So, of course, I was particularly compelled to read Mantel’s critically acclaimed version, purported to turn previous characterizations on their heads; especially in regard to Sir Thomas Cromwell. Often vilified and detested, the Cromwell of Mantel’s making is yet another pawn in the erratic hands of a demanding, impetuous King Henry VIII.

Early on in the novel, I took a disliking to Mantel’s style. It seemed unnecessarily convoluted, as if it were trying to impress the reader with its ambitiousness. I have never before read something written in quite the same manner; choppy, disjointed, but with deeply affecting language. Mantel seemed to be pioneering more than just a new historical viewpoint; she seemed to be conjuring a whole new style of prose. I found it very brave and forward-thinking, but also a bit off-putting and pretentious.

As my reading progressed; and after a lengthy break from the book, in which I did some light and pleasurable reading, I did seem to settle into a bit of a comfortable rhythm with her words. By the novel’s end I was finding it less taxing, and now, I have surprised myself by wanting to continue on to the second book in her series, Bring up the Bodies.

Mantel does excel at some gorgeous turns of phrase, and her unique version of these familiar events allows the story to excite and surprise us, despite our knowledge of the end.
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on 17 October 2017
I'm going against popular opinion here, maybe it was the novel I read before this one that impacted my frame of mind. I felt I was reading through a gauze of too many words, so couldn't get into the story. Leaves me apologetic and unsure if the failing is mine, as I know Hilary's books are so popular.
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