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"Wolf Hall" by Hillary Mantel

October 31, 2011 by PatLeach
Sunday evening I finished "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

My college roommate suggested I read it, well, actually, she sneered me into it, suggesting that a public librarian who hadn't heard of "Wolf Hall" needed to get out more often.

I enjoyed this novel of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the man who arranged so much behind-the-scenes for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn.

The book opens with a harrowing scene of a teenage Thomas, eyes even with the pavement, being beaten nearly senseless by his own father. His flight from his father leads him to France and elsewhere as a soldier and wool merchant. Mantel essentially skips those years, and when Thomas returns, he knows several languages, has developed an uncanny ability to make money, and works closely with the eminent Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolsey's fall, Cromwell attaches to the royal household. His persuasiveness combines with wiliness in the services that he provides to the royal court and to those who surround it. People learn to be afraid of Cromwell.

Cromwell develops a vibrant domestic life, even after the death of his wife and beloved daughters. His taking in of young people and caring for outcasts shows his softer side.

The book ends with the death of Thomas More, several years before Cromwell himself falls out of favor.

I wasn't so sure that I would enjoy a book set in sixteenth century England.I found that it worked best if I could devote a few hours of reading to the early parts of the book while I acquainted myself with the characters. Mantel's ability to tell a story, and especially to reveal the details of speech and manner, set my attachment. She drew the characters into lively people. What seemed unusual in the telling was the lack of a central conflict or threat. There was a natural trajectory in Cromwell's rise from a nobody to a somebody (even without noble blood), but then he seemed to plateau. I wished for some suspense. And this may be the challenge of well-researched historical fiction that is true to its time--the chronology may not result in dramatic effect.

At 500 pages, this book requires some commitment. I see it as a good winter book...one that may require the investment of hours-at-a-time reading sessions. I'll recommend it to Anglophiles, to those who appreciate clever language, and to fans of serious historical fiction.


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