Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I’ll have to review this book from somewhat distant memory. I’m on my 3rd book since finishing this – haven’t had time to write with a new job and travelling to New Zealand. But here it is –

They could have called it ‘Wolf Haul’. This book was a little bit of a haul. Over 600 pages. I must admit that at times I couldn’t quite concentrate, and while my eyes skimmed over the words they didn’t really register with me. So there is probably plenty that I didn’t take note of.

Written about Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters in the 1500s, I appreciated that Mantel didn’t write in archaic language like you would expect of this time period. In fact, the characters were pleasantly witty and the dialogue was not overly elaborate so it could have almost been mistaken for present day.

The book is written from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, charting his rise from lowly beginnings to one of the king’s main advisors. The narrative is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and while I am left somewhat amused and impressed by it – I’m not sure that I liked it. There is this strange distance from Cromwell, to the point that his name is used only sparingly. Rather than ‘Cromwell did this’, Mantel would write ‘He did this’. It gets confusing when there are a lot of characters and it can be a bit ambiguous who ‘he’ is.

Nevertheless, I think Cromwell is written excellently. Again, that strange distance the author keeps from him stops us from knowing him too intimately, but I believe that is intentionally done as a way of further reaffirming him as a quiet, mysterious type who keeps his thoughts to himself. I like this description of Cromwell:

One never thinks of you alone, Cromwell, but in company, studying the faces of other people, as if you yourself mean to paint them. You make other men think, not “what does he look like?” but “what do I look like?”

So even other characters in the book are aware of Cromwell’s character: his careful observance of others, his calculated actions and words, which are no doubt why he rises to become one of the most powerful men of the time. I get the feeling he is deeply, deeply intelligent. Not just intellectually, but emotionally.

I don’t really have much else to say except to congratulate Mantel on her interpretation of historical characters and events. She makes them seem so very plausible. She also uses rich, beautiful and creative language – like this:

Anne is lying in her shift. She looks flat as a ghost, except for the shocking mound of her six-month child.

‘Flat as a ghost’! ‘Shocking mound’! Such great ways of expressing!

 

(Oh and ps. Anne Boleyn does not get beheaded in this book. I was sort of pervertedly looking forward to that bit. But it will probably be in Mantel’s next book of the series!)

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