Tuesday, December 8, 2009

REVIEW: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Published 2009 by Henry Holt. Literary fiction.

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.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

23 comments:

Holloway McCandless said...

Marie--your review has tipped me off the fence and I will add it to my list. So great that she characterized all those long-dead folks so we can keep them sorted. But first I have to read Moonstone for book club!

Blodeuedd said...

I really liked this one, but oh yes it was one big book! It took a while for me too since I read it very slowly.

Literary Feline said...

I followed your advice and bought a copy of this one. Okay, so I bought it before reading your review, but you've solidified my feeling that I did the right thing. :-) I love books like this. I hadn't heard there would be a sequel! That's good news. Thanks for your great review, Marie.

Aarti said...

I loved this book, but I completely agree with your review. It's not an easy one. I seem to be one of the few who read it straight through- more due to terror of forgetting its intricacies than for anything else!

bermudaonion said...

Reviews for this seem to be all over the place. I don't read a lot of historical fiction, so this may not be for me.

Pam said...

Oooo, I love historical fiction about the time of Henry VIII. I've also read lots of non-fiction about this time period. I can't believe I've never heard of this book! I'm adding it my tbr list right now. Thanks for the great review.

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

Great usage of a quotation in this review. I've been really interested in this one, but also feeling intimidated like you. I'll give it a shot one of these days :)

JoAnn said...

I've been at the top of the library hold list for weeks now! I know there will be no renewals, so am worried it will come during the holidays when there is no time to read. I'll probably just 'test read' the library copy and decide if I want to buy.

bookmagic said...

Thanks for your review, I've been thinking about this one but was a bit intimidated. I think I will add this to the list for next year

caite said...

intimidated...yep, me too. ;-)

and I am not a great big historical fiction fan. even though I have read good things..including your review...I admit being still on the fence.

Anni said...

Thanks for the review. I hope it will be translated into Hungarian soon, I'm worrying a bit about "the formidable size and considerable depth", it would be maybe too difficult for me to read the originaly version.

Marie said...

Caite- I promise not to take it personally if you decide not to read it! Nothing's for everybody.

Diane said...

Marie....I've been undecided about this book. I like historical fiction, but don't love it, and I'm not sure I'd have the patience for this on right now. Thanks 4 your great and honest review.

Rebecca Reid said...

I think it's good to sometimes read those huge books that take effort to get through -- they often are quite rewarding!

I'm not sure this one is on my soon TBR but thanks for the great review!

mattviews said...

I have been keeping my fingers crossed on this one because I wasn't sure if there is a prequisite on the history of the period. You have convinced me that it's something I'll enjoy.

Zibilee said...

Awesome,awesome review! I am so very glad that you liked this and am really looking forward to cracking open my copy. I am a big historical fiction fan, and I particularly love to read about Henry VIII, so I am super excited about this book!

wisteria said...

I put this one off until my holiday break. I can't wait though. I started it and really loved the writing.
Thanks for your splendidn review.

jewwishes said...

What a great review, Marie!

I've seen this in the stores, but haven't bought it...yet.

Serena said...

Interesting review and book, though I think I'll shy away from this one for now due to its size.

stacybuckeye said...

This one is on my tbr list. I think it would be perfect for snowy January and February days.

Amy Reads Good Books said...

Great review! I'm about 1/4 of the way through. I put it aside to read something else, but now I'm intrigued to get to the part where Henry is a bigger player!

Pam said...

I just finished this one based on your recommendation and the fact that it counts toward the Book Prize Book Challenge! I love anything and everything to do with the Tudor period in English history. I, too, thought it was dense read, but I enjoyed it.

kinnareads said...

Wonderful review. Wolf Hall is tremendous. Love your blog too. I'll be coming here often. Also saw your review of Beatrice and Virgil, which I'm going to read next month.