Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book Review: "Wolf Hall"

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, this year's Booker Prize-winning novel (published in the U.S. by Henry Holt, 2009), is the first of two volumes covering the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, a sometime trusted advisor to Henry VIII (typically portrayed as something of a villain). I've included his picture here (by Hans Holbein) since it ends up playing something of a role in the book.

This volume, which takes the reader through Cromwell's rise up to the summer of 1535, ends with the execution of Sir Thomas More; the next (which Mantel has said she hopes to publish in "a couple of years") will encompass the final five years of Cromwell's life (culminating in his precipitate fall from grace).

While I found myself occasionally thinking that this book was plodding along, it was the good sort of plod, the sort that I think must accurately depict anyone's life (even one as fraught with intrigue, politics, and moments of import as Cromwell's was). Mantel has ably captured, I think, the state of Henrician England during the 1530s, as the king sought to put aside Wife # 1 (Katherine of Aragon) and her daughter for Wife # 2 (Anne Boleyn). The ensuing debate, which of course rippled across the political and cultural landscape of not just the British Isles of all of Europe as well, is the stuff of hundreds if not thousands of books, but Mantel has synthesized it remarkably through Cromwell's viewpoint.

Mantel's book can be read by the general reader, but those with some knowledge and understanding of the history of the period will probably get more out of it, as the author offers up much historical context, background and foreshadowing in what might appear to be casual asides. It's also handy to keep a search window up nearby, so you can check names, titles, dates, or topics of interest as you go (or look for images of the characters, which I rather like to do).

Much has been made of Mantel's decision to use "he" to refer almost always to Cromwell, which creates a degree of grammatical ambiguity at times. I didn't find this device as annoying as I feared I might, although it was confusing at times when it wasn't clear just who "he" was supposed to be (it's not always Cromwell).

The texture and detail which Mantel brings to the Tudor court with this book is an absolute delight. Her discussions of contemporary events through the eyes of her characters are illuminating, and her portrayal of Cromwell is simply fascinating. I'll look forward to the next volume with impatience.