Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
|Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A revisionist look at Henry VIII's minister, Thomas Cromwell. Rich, absorbing and intelligent, it's a beautiful, beautiful book.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 672||Date: April 2009|
|Publisher: Fourth Estate|
A Times Educational Supplement Teachers' Top 100 Book
They say power is sexy, and never more so than here, in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. You could call it the Anti-Man For All Seasons, with its revisionist look at two Thomases - Cromwell and More. Here, we see a rationalist and humane Cromwell oversee the downfall of a self-adoring and fanatical More. What? More Tudors? Have we not seen enough, read enough? I hear you say it now. Without this book, no, it's not enough, I promise. It's beautiful and rich and deep and absolutely relevant.
Power was sexy then and it's sexy now. The debates about freedom of expression, religion and state, the relationship between society and the individual, they began to take recognisable shape in Tudor times and they still occupy us today. We have yet to find the answers and here Mantel presents her defence of the weak, her argument for tolerance and inclusion, and she does it through the much-maligned historical figure of Thomas Cromwell.
We follow Cromwell from childhood, through the rise of the Boleyns and the fall of Wolsey up until the death of Sir Thomas More. Most of the action takes place over nine years and yet there is so much to it that I couldn't begin to precis it here - and I don't really need to, since we know it all already. It's a brick of a book at 650 pages and it's dense and rich and utterly absorbing. Outside the court intrigue about the King's Great Matter is Austin Friars, Cromwell's home, which serves to show another way of living, one that eschews violence and revenge in favour of nurture, debate and compromise. London teems in the background in a vivid picture of life for the common people. Boatmen speak in their argot. Deserted wives hire themselves out as laundresses by the day.
It's funny too, full of sly digs and rueful self-awareness. George Boleyn, a fop and dandy, constantly picks at the puffing on his sleeves, enlarging himself in the most petty of ways. A couple of hundred pages later, at a moment of crisis, his sleeves are only medium-puffed. The Duke of Norfolk, a prehistoric representation of the old strictures wonders 'What's the use of talking to women? Cromwell, you don't talk to women, do you? I mean, what would be the topic? Cromwell himself, whose origins are shrouded in public mystery, which cachet he rather enjoys, is often told he looks like a murderer, but in Mantel's imagination, it is he who is truly a man for all seasons. He's a linguist, a lawyer, an accountant - he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He laughs sometimes and regrets at others.
Told in the present tense, and with that new-fangled reporting of speech without punctuation, but only sometimes, dense in both form and detail, it's a demanding read but an absolutely immediate and all-consuming one. I put it down after the final page with a real sense of regret. I don't think I've ever read a better piece of historical fiction.
The Booker longlist for 2009 includes Wolf Hall and looks pretty good (or looked, if you're reading this long after it's all been decided). We particularly enjoyed The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is in the Man Booker Prize 2009.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is in the Booker Prize Winners.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.
You can read more book reviews or buy Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.