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by Hilary Mantel
Born the son of a blacksmith and forged as a soldier and cloth merchant, Thomas Cromwell is clever, tough man with a dark reputation. A hard worker with a knack for reading people, he has worked his way up to secretary of Cardinal Wolsey, the right-hand man of the King of England. However, when Henry VIII wishes to divorce his Spanish queen and marry Anne Boleyn, Wolsey’s inability to bring fast results leads to his downfall, opening a power vacuum into which Cromwell easily slides. Cromwell is a dangerous man to have as your enemy, but the mercurial king he serves is volatile, unpredictable, and unafraid to destroy those whom he raises to fame and fortune. Wolf Hall, the first book in a proposed trilogy, covers Cromwell’s life from his childhood through to the execution of Thomas More.
Ah, Wolf Hall. People have been telling me to read this book for years. “Yes, it’s another book about the Tudors,” they say, “but it’s different from all the ones you’ve read before.” That it is. Most of the books I read focus on the great romances of Henry VIII’s wives, the wooing, wedding and eventual disposal of his various queens. This does not.
One of the nice aspects of a book told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell is really get to enjoy the political turmoil of the period. It’s common knowledge that Henry VIII dissolved monasteries and claimed their assets for the crown, but from Cromwell’s perspective this is for the best. The monks are not tossed out onto the streets, but moved to other religious houses run by better managers. It’s consolidation, not destruction, and therefore justified. I don’t know if there’s any truth to the assertion, but it’s certainly a different way of viewing the actions of the Crown at that time.
This turnaround is also shown in how various characters are portrayed. Thomas More isn’t the sympathetic, principled intellectual from The Tudors or Man for All Season - he’s a religious fanatic who enjoys torturing heretics. Anne Boleyn’s shrewish and manipulative, clever but not all that likeable. No one is perfect, or even all that good. It’s a darker, dirtier England – but one that is much more sympathetic to Cromwell, who usually lurks in the background of Tudor novels like a villainous vulture.
The style of the book is also quite different. Thomas Cromwell’s story is told in the third person present tense. At times, the story jumps around – a thought is suddenly abandoned but picked up again a few paragraphs later. Chronological order is rough and often abandoned for flashbacks. Cromwell is also rarely identified by name – usually, it’s just “he” and “him” over and over – which can get confusing, as can the sheer size of the cast and the commonality of names. Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Wyatt, and goodness knows how many other Toms pepper the narrative. But after a while, you get used to all of it.
I really enjoyed Wolf Hall, but it was definitely more challenging than the average Tudor novel. It’s a dense, wordy book that requires concentration and dedication to finish, but I thought the story was well worth the time invested.
4.5 out of 5 stars
To read more about Wolf Hall, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on vacation until June 9th
2011: The Daughter of Siena by Marina Fiorato
2010: Asian Pacific American Book Lot Winner
2009: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory