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?
Oh my goodness, what a brilliant book! I read a lot of books that I really enjoy, but it’s not very often that I read what I would consider a legitimate masterpiece. This is one of those novels.
Let me start by saying that the writing style in this book is VERY strange. It took me probably about a hundred pages to get used to it. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness style, but not quite. Cromwell’s thoughts jump around from present to past frequently and often without warning. There’s not a lot of dialogue, and sometimes it’s written in quotations, sometimes just part of the paragraph. Cromwell is rarely referenced by name, and most often referred to simply as “he”, which took me a long time to figure out. I was constantly re-reading paragraphs trying to figure out which “he” Mantel was referring to! It’s also written in present tense, which is certainly unusual for a historical fiction novel.
However, once I got used to the writing style, it flowed so beautifully. This book is wonderfully crafted, a perfect mix of history and speculation, broad scope events and personal narrative.
I have been obsessed with Tudor England for just about as long as I can remember, but reading about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from Cromwell’s point of view was a refreshing change. And I really enjoyed getting to know Cromwell himself. He’s a character always looming over this story, but whose personality I’d never really given much thought to. When you read about Katherine and Mary he’s often painted as the villain, so you never see much past their dislike.
I loved how accurately Mantel presented the religious and political conflicts. No modern-day ideas have managed to creep their way into THIS book! Everything felt so authentic to the time, and I actually ended up learning a lot about the Protestant Reformation in England, something I thought I was already pretty well-versed in. Cromwell turns out to be kind of an idealist, and a passionate believer in God. And yet, he is such a flawed man. I love how Mantel presented the characters as devout Christians who hate Rome for their hypocrisy, yet end up being just as sinful as the Church. She’s not afraid to show a character’s bad side.
The sense of humor in this novel was also on-point, although it took even longer for me to catch on than the writing style did. I was about halfway through before I realized it was a comedy! It’s all very subtle, and you have to be willing to invest in the characters in order to understand the humor.
Finally, the sexuality. I have been wanting to read this book for years, but always put it off because so much Tudor historical fiction has obscene amounts of graphic sexual content. It ruins the books for me. I’d asked people, and no one would give me a straight answer. Guys. THERE ARE NO SEX SEQUENCES IN THIS BOOK! Hallelujah! Obviously everyone is having sex with everyone else, and they talk about it. But true to the time it is almost always so vague, and when it isn’t it’s still people TALKING. By nature it’s not going to be like reading a romance novel. So I was pleasantly surprised by that.
I’ve just been singing this book’s praises, but I only gave it four stars. What’s up with that? Honestly, it was kind of a difficult read. Even once I got used to the writing style, the pace is VERY slow, and there are SO MANY characters to keep up with. It’s not like these things made the book bad. On the contrary, I think they’re part of what makes the book so brilliant. However, I’m personally just going to enjoy a difficult book less. That’s all.
I highly recommend this book to all historical fiction lovers. It’s funny, full of intrigue, and timeless in its writing. This is one people will certainly be reading for a very long time.