Much has been made of Wolf Hall, the fictionalized account of Henry the VIII’s court, since its original release in 2009; from the Man Booker Prize, to universal critical acclaim and monster sales, it’s all been richly deserved. Though repeatedly the subject of writing, theater and film, Hilary Mantel’s engrossing retelling of this Tudor chapter of history is perhaps the finest since Shakespeare broached the subject.
Set in the years between 1500 and 1535 and centered on the events that helped shape modern Europe, it’s the story of Henry’s wedding of Anne Boleyn and the divorce that forever altered Western Civilization. The courting of Anne and Henry’s quest for an heir form the ostensible backdrop of this story but Mantel’s focus on the backroom dealing and horse trading that facilitated the betrothal is the real point of interest. Wrangling with the Vatican, the slippery French, and the hated Spanish while trying to prevent an invasion by a united Christian Europe and suppressing an uprising on the home front are just some of the preoccupations Henry faces.
Fortunately he has a ringmaster named Thomas Cromwell to handle the delicate -and not so delicate- intricacies of his agenda. And in the hands of Mantel, what a fascinating man Cromwell proves to be. The archetype of a “well-rounded Englishman” he is an engrossing and complex protagonist in this original take on the Tudor court. As a sort of a benevolent Machiavelli, who deftly balances and pragmatism and hope, ambition and intrigue are just as much at the core of Cromwell as the other courtesans, but we want to believe that his motivations are somehow for a greater good and that’s partly why Mantel’s Cromwell is so irresistible.
Contrary to most works that tend to focus on Henry or Anne as the singular characters, Mantel cleverly chooses Cromwell as the narrative vessel for navigating this era of European upheaval. Cromwell is all the more remarkable as he is the first man of low-born status to ascend to right hand of the throne, head the government and essentially hold the keys to the realm. And this clash of classes adds to the richness of this work by humanizing the historical events.
Mantel’s gifts as a writer are apparent from the first few paragraphs. From the opening scenes the prose accelerates, compelling you to burn through the 604 pages. She flaunts convention writes with clarity and doesn't indulge in wordy flourishes. But perhaps the most impressive quality of her writing is that she’s able to inject an almost kinetic quality into the economical, even sparse, prose; the words dance off the page and it reads almost like a thriller.
Wolf Hall is the first of a Cromwell trilogy and we give this remarkable book our highest recommendation for historical fiction. The second of the series, Bring Up the Bodies, was published in 2012 and has also been showered in critical acclaim and awards. We can’t wait to devour it!
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