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.