When I first picked up Wolf Hall, my eyes saw the words “Thomas Cromwell” but my brain saw “Oliver Cromwell”. That’s clearly not who Hilary Mantel is writing about, but being a proud Irish-American, my first thoughts were “ugh! I don’t want to read a book about the Lord Protector!” And then I saw the description, and realized that the book was about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Oops.
(As you can see, I’m not afraid to confess the occasional dumb moment. I like to think myself smart, and then I do things like that. Oh well.)
After reconciling with the Cromwell in question, I dove into Wolf Hall head first…and hit the bottom of the shallow end very quickly. I didn’t like it. The writing style was confusing, it was hard to tell who was speaking to whom, and it was hard to get a firm grasp on the historical elements right away. I’ll chalk part of this up to the fact that I just don’t know that much about Tudor England, although it’s a time in history I’d like to spend more time learning about. Perhaps if I knew who Cardinal Wolsey was right off the bat, for example, it would have been easier to engage in the story.
But, I try to give all but the worst books at least 50 pages, so I trudged on, and I’m glad I did.
Mantel is excellent at striking the right dramatic cord. This period in England was intense, and the Boleyn saga in general could read like a soap opera if done incorrectly. She maintained a good balance of drama, humor and brevity to keep from getting too melodramatic. There are a lot of characters, a lot of families, a lot of names. The handy list of characters at the beginning of the novel is a nice touch, but it helps that many of the characters are so clearly written, no matter how brief their time on the page is. It’s a testament to Cromwell’s personality (and the way Mantel has written it) that a book mainly written from his point-of-view can give such a clear picture of the motives and motivations of everyone else.
Wolf Hall is the first book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, so I knew from the beginning that the saga would continue, even if this particular story was self-contained. The ending was neat and tidy, and even if the larger mess is still unfinished, the particular events in the last few chapters are a natural ending. I didn’t feel cheated, and while I enjoyed this book, I don’t plan on rearranging my to-be-read pile to put Bring Up the Bodies (the second in the trilogy) up at the top of my list.
You learn nothing about men by snubbing them and crushing their pride. You must ask them what it is they can do in this world, that they alone can do.
All those pertinent details:
- Title: Wolf Hall
- Author: Hilary Mantel
- Length: 532 (hardcover)
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5 – if you like historical fiction or the Tudors, give it a read. If not, save it for a cold winter’s night. It’s not a beach book.
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