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“Wolf Hall is one of those startlingly tough-looking...”

Written on: 07/09/2010 by degbert (120 reviews written)

Wolf Hall is one of those startlingly tough-looking historical novels that are normally not for the faint-hearted. It is worryingly big, especially in hardback, and even when you think "ok I'll tackle this" you see that it is not, actually, about Henry VIII at all, but ostensibly about one of his staff. Over 600 pages hearing about someone who once worked for the king?

Author Hilary Mantel clearly had some lofty ambitions - and an unfaltering self-belief. It turns out this was for good reason...

Wolf Hall is a big, ambitious, vivid, colourful, intriguing and sometimes bewilderingly detailed tale; a journey deep into the heart of Tudor high politics, but also into 16th-century reality for the less privileged. The subject, Thomas Cromwell, referred to infuriatingly often (and, I think, playfully) as 'he', without context, evolves on a life-journey from abused son of a bullying and embittered smith, through various rights of passage to become chief secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, the head of Church in England and great orchestrator of Tudor politics. Cromwell star rises further as he emerges from Wolsey's shadow to become, at Henry's side, various and increasingly powerful roles in the Westminster and Court arena.

Cromwell's journey is set against Henry's own ascent to the Crown, and inexorably towards the head of the new, reformed Church. The events that provide context are smartly positioned and something for the historiographers, but tend to avoid the obvious. You need to know your history, or go look it all up, to understand some of the context. But this tends to lend itself to the story, as it remains a novel, despite its historical accuracy, largely because the detail to which it refers is largely unknown to all but the keenest historian.

What brought the book to life though is the depiction of the sights, sounds, smells, and the abject frailty of life itself. Cromwell's home life, so frequently a story of loss, misery and regret, is lavishly portrayed, and some of most enjoyable characters are from Austin Friars or another of his residences. The entire story seems to have been built on a brilliantly-conceived foundation of the Cromwell household, a novel in its own right I would fancy.

Others have commented on where the novel goes and how it all pans out; that misses the point. This is a tale that is most enjoyable while on the journey. The destination is well-known, and to Mantel's credit, is barely brought any resolution. Ambitiously conceived, charmingly delivered - a worthy Booker Prize winner for sure.

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