Though it has taken me four weeks to get through this novel, it is in no way a reflection of its quality and content. It’s just a really thick book!
This mammoth novel takes us back in history when Henry VIII was shaking the very foundation of the Church in his bid to marry Anne Boleyn. Fun times, huh?
Now so much has been written about one of the most reformative and turbulent period of Tudor rule that it is difficult to leave your own mark and bring some freshness to it.
But Hilary Mantel achieves that with aplomb. Let’s start with the writing style. When you are reading a story that’s a few hundred years you expect to read big complicated sentences and you expect to read it in past tense. Mantel twists convention on its head, and we have a post modernistic third person narrative in present tense. It tends to throw you off in the beginning but finally draw you in making you actually feel involved. The language at times is so casual that it is not believable – but you still like it because it somehow makes more sense.
Something that I found confusing constantly was the use of “he” for Cromwell throughout the book. Very rarely, would that pronoun be used to refer to any other character. After a hundred pages, I confirmed the ground rule – if there is a “he” it refers to Cromwell. This saved me from re-reading several paras again.
Now what truly makes this different from the other versions is the choice of protagonist – Thomas Cromwell. History and literature has not treated him well. Though he was the primary force behind England’s church reformation, he made several enemies as his role as Chief Minister for Henry VIII, as he stripped nobility and the priests of their excessive powers. His role in Queen Katherine’s marriage annulment and Anne Boleyn’s beheading truly made him unpopular with the general public.
But there are two sides to every story. Mantel presents Cromwell in the most humane light as yet. Wolf Hall is his story. In this version of Cromwell’s life, we see how he escapes an abusive childhood to make his own life abroad. We see how time and circumstance make him jack of all trades. We see how he becomes a part of Cardinal Wolsey’s office and how he learns the intricacies of politics. We see how he comes to attention to the King with his bold but sensible comments. The pace of the growth of his power is astonishing. The more interesting parts of the story are about Thomas Cromwell, the man himself. Mantel does an excellent job in building out these little character details – his relationship with his wife, his love for his daughters, his multi-linguism, his knowledge of the law and religion and most of it his willingness to give everyone a chance at their life.
Mantel does not intend to and neither are we fooled in believing that Cromwell is the good guy. Nor he is a victim of circumstances. In fact, he is like anyone of us. Trying to make a living. He is an ambitious man and he wants security for his future generations. The only way to do that is to make the King happy. Everything else follows.
All the other players of the Henry – Anne saga remain the same : Henry Tudor, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and Duke of Norfolk. Mantel is brilliant at character sketches and event the smallest characters are drawn out with much detail.
Ofcourse, most of this is speculation, but, a very worthy speculation at that.
More than passing knowledge of Tudor history is expected and I did find myself googling up a lot of history.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wolf Hall. It has been one of the most satisfying reads in recent times for me. If 550 pages don’t scare you, then do pick this up.