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Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Thomas Cromwell’s star is ascending.  From the docks of Putney, where his father beats him, to the grandest palaces in England, Cromwell’s rise is nothing short of amazing.  A clever politician, hardened by years abroad, Cromwell knows when to leave Wolsey’s sinking ship and head to the king’s side, where he is the one who most helps him divorce his wife so that he can marry Anne Boleyn.  Through both personal tragedy and public glory, Cromwell is an enigmatic character, and Hilary Mantel has given him the story he deserves.

I’m not sure how I feel about this Booker Prize winner.  It has both its good and its bad points.  I do think it was written well.  I was forewarned about the excessive use of “he” and whenever I couldn’t track the direct reference, I assumed that the author was talking about Cromwell, so that didn’t bother me.  I didn’t like that it was written in present tense, though, because it kept jumping out at me and reminding me how much I dislike present tense.  Moreover, the book was often boring, and dragged on excessively, especially for someone who knows the Tudor period far too well.  It follows the history, but that doesn’t always make for a particularly exciting story.

On the other hand, this is possibly the best picture of Tudor England I have ever read.  For some reason, Mantel could transport me there better than anyone has before.  I loved that she focused on Cromwell, someone who is often in the background or villainized, and made him into a genuine person.  He had such a varied background that Mantel could write about the poor as well as the rich.  She could write about the middle class, which Cromwell occupies for a while.  She gives us a picture of all levels of society, and we can greater see the contrast of the elegant man in the king’s glittering court to the poor boy with his beaten face pressed into the mud.   The detail in this book is astounding, and admittedly is part of the reason it dragged, but creates a whole picture of a world that could easily be foreign.

I also really liked Cromwell, surprisingly.  His character was well-rounded and I felt like he was a person I could relate to in a world that I couldn’t.  He’s a very clever man, but he also experiences grief and joy just like the rest of us.  I think many people could see themselves in his character because he feels like a human being, not a character on the page.  Cromwell’s character is, in my opinion, what makes this book great, despite the fact that the plot is so very meandering.

So I’m unsure as to whether or not I can recommend Wolf Hall.  If you’re in the mood for a fast read, stay away.  I suggest instead taking it slowly and appreciating the world that Mantel creates.  I hear Mantel is writing a sequel and I know I still want to read it.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book from the publisher for review.

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