Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and big weighty tome, I can understand why a lot of folks would be intimidated by Hilary Mantel's latest, Wolf Hall, about the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII. I was intimidated. After all, I'm not a regular reader of historical fiction of this period, and I know only its barest facts. But that's okay, because despite its formidable size and considerable depth, Mantel has written a lively and accessible piece of fiction that will reward those who attempt it with a rich literary experience.
So who was Thomas Cromwell? A blacksmith's son who rises to be Henry's top adviser; a loving husband and grieving widower; a crafty and wily politician. Wolf Hall covers the period of time from 1500 to mid-1535, with an emphasis on the latter five years or so. The drama concerns Cromwell's role in the English Reformation and the remarriage of Henry to his ladyfriend Anne Boleyn, as well as the roles and fates of Cardinal Wolsey, who opposed Henry's efforts to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine, as well as that of Katherine, her daughter Mary and Lord Chancellor Thomas More. The book opens with a five-page cast of characters and two pages of family trees, but you'll hardly need them thanks to Mantel's wonderfully vivid characterizations. I needed to flip back a couple of times to remind myself just who a particular character was in the grand scheme, but even relatively minor characters are distinct and individualized.
Particularly vivid are Henry, Anne and her sister Mary and Cromwell's own family. Anne is like a viper among the roses, quiet and determined to be queen, and Mary's distinguishing characteristic becomes clear with the repeated emphasis on her sexual escapades. Henry is a star- fitting as he is the king- a resolute and confident monarch:
[Speaking to Cromwell], Henry stirs into life. "Do I retain you for what is easy? Jesus pity my simplicity, I have promoted you to a place in this kingdom that no one, no one of your breeding has ever held in the whole of the history of this realm." He drops his voice. "Do you think it is for your personal beauty? The charm of your presence? I keep you, Master Cromwell, because you are as cunning as a bag of serpents. But do not be a viper in my bosom. You know my decision. Execute it.I love this passage for what it shows of both Henry and Cromwell, as well as their relationship- stormy and sometimes difficult but driven by respect one for the other.
Wolf Hall is a long book and not a particularly easy or quick one but well worth the time and effort it demands. It took me about a month and a half to read carefully. I can't say I loved it exactly, but I admired it and think that for those of you who read historical fiction of this period it's required reading. I would also strongly recommend it for readers of character-driven literary fiction. You absolutely do not need to be well-versed in the history of the period to understand or enjoy it, but be prepared to take it slow. There is a sequel in the works as well, covering the rest of Cromwell's life. So if you think you're up for it, give it a try. You won't be sorry.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.