Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
I have recently found myself in a strange fascination with Henry’s reign, due for the most part to my stunning discovery of Six: the Musical. I knew I had a few fictional novels chronicling those times, so I decided to dig out Wolf Hall and get going - wow.
This book is enchanting and taxing in equal measures. Cromwell has been logged in the history books as one utterly bad dude, and yet Mantel manages to render him human; a man doing his job. He’s low-born, and practically emotionless, yet this ability to feel nothing is an invaluable asset in this cutthroat world. He shoots rapidly up the Tudor ladder until he’s almost sitting in the king’s lap. I felt like a spy in the camp, following his political and social decision making, and it was bloody glorious.
However, it’s quite a challenge to become acquainted with Mantel’s writing style here. Although it’s beautifully structured and incredibly engaging, she opts to refer to Cromwell for the most part as ‘he’. Despite occasionally clarifying with a rare ‘he, Cromwell’, this lends a very confusing aspect to situations where there are a number of males in the room - which is, regrettably, a frequent occurrence.
Patience is essential in reading Wolf Hall. You need to reread; you need to understand completely what’s happening, and that sometimes doesn’t happen immediately. There’s long heavy prose on politics (to quote Anne from Six: “Politics? Not my thing.”), and a huge number of characters to remember - most of whom are referred to at times by title, and at times by name. It doesn’t help that about 80% of them are called Thomas. Once all of the above is grasped, you’ll experience a gorgeous immersion in history.
I must admit, Wolf Hall has made me realise my main interest in Henry’s reign doesn’t have anything to do with Henry at all - it’s the wives. Although here we see Katherine’s downfall and Anne’s succession, a few strains are showing in marital life, and Jane is already beginning to show her face more. I understand the sequel’s focus is to be on Anne’s undoing, and let me tell you, I am here for it.
Don’t lose your head.