Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Book Review

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

If you don’t already know what this book is about, there is a good chance this isn’t the sort of book you would like, because this has got to be hands-down the most talked about historical fiction novel of the past 12 months: Henry VIII’s court from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view.

Thomas Cromwell. Not, perhaps, the most sympathetic character from Henry VIII’s reign, and there were an awful lot of unsympathetic characters running around that court. In most works of historical fiction, Cromwell is vilified, detested; he is a horrible, horrible man who craves naught but power and influence. Honestly, doesn’t sound like the sort of man that I would like to read a 600 page book about, whose head I would want to be in for that long.

But Mantel does something special with Cromwell in “Wolf Hall.” She humanizes him, and actually makes him sympathetic. Honestly, I’m not even sure how she did it. Although we are somewhat in Cromwell’s head throughout the story, her narration is still in third person and somehow everything seems a little ¬†on the distant side – I felt almost as if I was watching everything take place through a pane of frosted glass. And yet, I felt that I understood him, that I cared what he thought and felt.

One of the main things that everyone has talked about with this book is the fact that it is a difficult read. In particular, Mantel almost always refers to Cromwell simply as ‘he’ and, yes, when he’s talking to other men, that gets very confusing. And really, some of the passages are just plain dense, and a bit hard to get through, in the second and third sections particularly.

But then, in the second half of the book, it just all came together for me. I was completely drawn into the story by that point, I was used to Mantel’s writing, and it all just flowed. I loved it. LOVED it. I’ve never read Tudor fiction like this, I’ve never seen Cromwell as a character like this and, despite early difficulties, I absolutely adored it.

If you love literary fiction and historical fiction and are willing to put a little work into your books, I highly recommend “Wolf Hall.”

A note on how I read this: I actually read “Wolf Hall” over about six weeks, reading a section each weekend to discuss on Monday with a friend. Although the discussions petered out, I think that reading it like this really worked well for me. Trying to read the entire thing at once might have burned me out, but having it as my weekend read with other books during the week always left me wanting more, particularly towards the end when I got really into it.

Buy this book from:
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This review was done with a book received as a gift.
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17 comments to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Book Review

  • I really really want to try and read this, but I don’t see how I could find the time for it in the near future. Reading it on the weekends seems like a great idea. I’m definitely going to remember that for when I get around to it.

  • I am so hesitant about this book but you have upped my motivation to dive into it. Especially, the admissions that it might drag in spots. I really don’t have much background into who’s who at that court so I don’t have any bias (?) against Cromwell, so maybe that, too, will work into my favor. Great review, thank you. I also appreciate you sharing your reading approach in small pieces vs non-stop. That might be a good advice for me to get over my fear of chunksters.

    • What’s nice about “Wolf Hall” is that it is already broken into 6 sections that are around 100 pages each and they stand on their own pretty well, so it lends itself very well to this method of reading.

  • You have given me hope that I may be able to finish this book one day. It hasn’t really picked up for me yet (I’m still stuck midway between part 4 I think)but since you said you liked the second half of the book better, maybe it will pick up for me.

  • Amy

    This is on my tbr shelf so I’m glad to see that you enjoyed it so much. Can’t wait to get to it myself… eventually!

  • I can’t say that I loved this book but Mantel does a great job making Cromwell likable, well sort of. I’m glad I read it even if it felt like slog some days.

  • I also LOVED this book. I read it on my own, but I think reading it in a group would be a great method. It’s always nice to discuss events and literary books in that manner.

    And if you liked this one, I HIGHLY recommend A Place of Greater Safety. I LOVED that book, too.

  • Astrid

    I read about half of this book and put it down, picked it up again and put it down again. I really want to like it as I love historical fiction, especially during medieval Europe. Your suggestion to digest it in chunks inspired me to slog through the book so I can, hopefully, feel its magic. Cycling_Chef

  • I have read and heard both good and not so good reviews of this book…but it sounds intriguing…I think I might have to go for it soon!!!

  • I will be honest, this genre is not my forte. So wading my way through this book is so overwhelming for me. Scares me. But it is hard to ignore the reviews, the accolades. Down the road, if I can stop freaking accepting review copies and stop joining challenges, I MIGHT do a read-along on this one. Just so others more wiley can hold my hand!

  • Definitely need to read this one. It came up as a possiblity for my IRL book club but there’s no way those women will work their way through a difficult to read, 600 page novel! Guess I’m on my own!

    • I think this is a BAD CHOICE for most IRL book clubs, honestly, so you guys made a good decision. I’m sure you can find more bloggers to read along sometime soon, though!

  • This book was fantastic and I can’t wait for the sequel!

  • I’m in the middle of read of Wolf Hall myself right now and while I don’t think I could have finished it any other way and it is making it far more enjoyable and I am ready for the darn thing to end. I am finding myself wondering, why is this the prize winner?

  • I am new to your blog and I really enjoyed reading your review of ‘Wolf Hall’. ‘Wolf Hall’ is on my ‘TBR’ list, but I haven’t got around to reading it yet. I don’t know a lot about the finer details of British history and so I thought initially that this book was about Oliver Cromwell rather than Thomas Cromwell, till I got the book and read the first few pages of it :) (Why hasn’t anyone written a book on Oliver Cromwell? He is also an intriguing character, isn’t he?)

    Hope you have a wonderful time at the BEA! I am jealous of all of you who are going there :)

  • Amy

    I’m about half done with this and am loving it too. I’m not usually fond of historical fiction, since so much of what I’ve read seems to have the author piling on historical details beyond necessity. It’s as if they thought, hey, I did all this research, now I’m going to tell you everything I learned. Mantel’s approach is so much easier–just tell me where and when this takes place, and give the reader credit for being smart enough to know it doesn’t look like 2010.