Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Release Date: October 13, 2009
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of an abusive blacksmith who runs away from home. It traces his rise in fortune, thanks to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Cromwell gets caught up in the intrigues of the court, becoming a central player in King Henry VIII’s desire to be rid of his wife, Katherine of Aragon, in order to marry his new love, Anne Boleyn.
I’ve been wanting to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall since I first heard about it. When it won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, I bought it immediately. Since then, it’s been waiting patiently on my shelf until I finally had the chance to pick it up and immerse myself in this impressive novel.
Wolf Hall is historical fiction at its best. Mantel breathes life into the figures of Henry VIII’s time as we see them through Cromwell’s eyes. They leap off the page, and the reader will quietly contemplate them long after their stories have been resolved. Cromwell himself is an intelligent, resourceful man who is talented at playing the game of court intrigue. It’s fascinating to watch this story, one that I’m so familiar with, unfold through the eyes of someone new.
It is very helpful to have some sort of background in Tudor history before starting this book. Henry VIII’s fight to divorce Katherine of Aragon is legendary, as is his love affair with Anne Boleyn. It’s worthwhile to know their basic stories (even if it’s just from the Showtime series The Tudors), as there is a lot going on in this book. The novel focuses on the time after Henry VIII sets Katherine aside but before he is allowed to marry Anne Boleyn. It’s a real treat for the reader, as we get to see the machinations behind the scenes. It also really highlights the fact that there is much more going on at this time than Henry’s lust for a woman other than his wife – England is going through religious turmoil as well, and Mantel makes sure that stays in the reader’s mind through the entire read.
The title of this book is very interesting – Wolf Hall. In history, Wolf Hall is the seat of the Seymour family (think Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife). The book is not set there and has no scenes there. However, I think it’s a sign for the reader of Cromwell’s way of thinking. The fate of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, is on Cromwell’s mind throughout the entire novel. As a result, he is constantly looking ahead to see what troubles might be coming up in order to accommodate them and make sure he survives the fallout. The rise of the Seymour family, and of Wolf Hall, is something that Cromwell must look ahead and see, as he is closely connected with the Boleyn family. It’s a sign of the way he thinks, to never be too dependent, even to those whom you owe a great deal.
Mantel really immerses the reader in the time period she writes. She uses such small details in order to set scenes, yet the narrative never becomes bogged down in historical facts. She must have done a tremendous amount of research before starting this book. Her writing is lyrical and draws the reader in, but I do have one complaint. It’s the same one I’ve seen over and over again about Wolf Hall, and after having read the book, I can understand why. The pronouns are very difficult in this book. Mantel refers to “he” all the time, yet it’s not always clear which person she’s referring to. As a result, it can be frustrating at times, but that is definitely no reason to not read this novel.
I loved every second I spent with Wolf Hall and felt bereft when I finished it. I was also a little confused though – there seemed to be a lot more story left to tell, and I wondered why Mantel chose to leave off where she did. Then, after some searching, I discovered that Mantel is already working on the sequel to Wolf Hall, (tentatively) called The Mirror and the Light. I was excited to hear this, as I do feel that there is a lot more Mantel can do with these characters and the time period.
Wolf Hall was an impressive and enjoyable novel, and I’m so glad I didn’t let the hype turn me off from reading it. I also appreciate that it has cross-genre appeal. If you’re a literary fiction fan who doesn’t read historicals, maybe this book will make you interested in the genre. On the other hand, if you love historical fiction, but avoid literary fiction, you will likely enjoy this book. I highly recommend it, but take your time and don’t rush through it. Savor each word, each sentence and hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.