Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I will be the first to admit that this wasn’t one of the Man Booker Long List that I was looking forward to the most. I think the size and subject, despite lots and lots of rave reviews online and in the press, were what were making me feel that this book was going to be too much for me. It wasn’t the fact it was historical fiction, in fact The Tudors, The Victorian era and the 1930’s are eras books can cover that I can read about until the cows come home. It was more who the book was about, was I really interested in a book all about Thomas Cromwell? You know the saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’ this might be my first case of ‘never judge a book by its subject’.

Reading the blurb I was lead to believe that ‘Wolf Hall’ would be the ‘fictional account of the first half of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ which considering I didn’t really know and wasn’t sure that I was all too bothered about. However ‘Wolf Hall’ isn’t just about Thomas Cromwell, though he is the main character and the book covers his youth and leads up to the height of his power to merely call it a ‘fictionalisation of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ doesn’t actually do the book justice whatsoever.

What Hilary Mantel manages to actually conjure up is 35 years of Tudor Britain and focusing especially the pivotal time in England’s history when Henry VIII decided Katherine was not the Queen for him and Anne Boleyn certainly was, thus changing the religious situation of England forever and creating one of its most tempestuous political climates. This isn’t told through the eyes of the King or off any of the Boleyn’s, this is all through the eyes of the man who would struggle and fight to become Henry’s right hand man from his beginnings as the son of an alcoholic abusive butcher.

Though what happens to him between 1500 and 1529 remains quite a mystery Mantel has clearly done a huge amount of research (you couldn’t make the Tudor world seem so very real without putting in huge amounts of time, effort and research) and does give us occasional glimpses when Cromwell reflects which he does now and again. What does come to light is he becomes Cardinal Wolsey’s right hand man and Cardinal Wolsey was of course Henry’s right hand man. Not only do we get to see the lavish lifestyles of the rich such as the king, the lavish like Wolsey and the comfortable like Cromwell. We also get to see, through Cromwell’s work with law, his time amongst the public and poor and time through plagues, how the poor lived and I honestly felt I was walking the streets with him.

Mantel never overdoes it though, her prose is descriptive but tight, she doesn’t wander off into endless flowery paragraphs of descriptions of one castle front, or one of Anne Boleyn’s dresses. The details are there they just happen to be precise and to the point yet vivid and scene setting. So if she is so precise how can this book be over 650 pages? Not because it is filled with endless political or religious terminology if that’s what you are worried about. Mantel spends time building all her characters and their back stories as Cromwell becomes aware of them or takes them into his household. Some of the cast of characters include as Wolsey, Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn as mentioned but also Mary Boleyn, Mary Tudor and Jane Seymour all fascinating historical characters.

I completely fell into the world of this book. I actually couldn’t put it down (which at its size in hardback is quite an effort on the arms) and rushed to read it at any given opportunity. Mantel may or may not win the Man Booker with this but what I think she has done is create an epic novel that will one day be considered a modern classic. I have found it to be one of the most compelling, interesting and complete joy to read novels of the year, and I don’t say that often or lightly. I think the fact it’s the longest of the Man Booker long list and I have read it in the shortest space of time of all of them should speak volumes.

I also think it’s a book that’s accessible to anyone. I don’t think everyone will like it, in fact I didn’t think I would at the start I just immersed myself and was ‘there’, well I felt I was. It seems inevitable that people will compare this to some of Philippa Gregory’s work, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ springs to mind instantly. While I did enjoy that book (sadly the one about one of my favourite women in history Bess of Hardwick ‘The Other Queen’ left me slightly cold) I do think Mantel takes the era an extra step though how is hard to put my finger on. No we will never know if these conversations ever happened but it does seem to be based much more on fact and less on what might possibly have happened. Having said that if you like Gregory (and I do – I just think this takes historical fiction further) then you will love this, if you love literary fiction I can imagine you loving this.

Can you tell I loved it yet? I will stop now, I could go on and on about this book for hours. I have given it straight to ‘The Converted One’ who is a Tudor-holic. I will just add that I do think going to Hampton Court Palace last week was the push I needed to read this and it came just at the right time.

Has anyone else been daunted by this book before reading it like I was? What are your thoughts on it being the favourite for the Man Booker at the moment? What do you think of historical fiction, can it be literary or is it just escapist romps in corsets? What’s the best historical novel you have read?

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32 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Fourth Estate Books, Hilary Mantel, Man Booker, Review

32 responses to “Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

  1. I *really* want to read this now. I love Hilary Mantel. I read her memoir last year and it was brilliant. She’s lead a very interesting and, at times, painful life.

  2. This one has never been on my radar, but your energy is infectious. I will tell you that more than once I’ve passed by a book in my pile because of its size. I love to get lost in a good tome, but sadly I am always thinking about my next post. I need to lighten up.

    • I have to admit I do think when I get a big massive book like this in front of me “how many books could I read instead of this one?” But as for your next post, you shouldnt be worrying about that, just do non-reviewish posts until the mammoth book is done.

      I am taking some big books to Tel Aviv as I wont have the internet and will be spending a lot of time on the beach.

  3. I’m desperate to read this, if only because I thought her last book, Beyond Black, was outstanding.

    I’m a fan of historical fiction, as long as it’s good (though this is my standard for all fiction, historical or not). I’m particularly keen on Victorian-era fiction as this is the period I’ve done my Masters on. Best one I can think of? The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. An astonishing book (and also rather long).

    • Oh a rave of Beyond Black, that will be zipping up my TBR then.

      The Crimson Petal and the White is brilliant, and I too am a huge fan of the Victorian era which is partly why am so excited by Sensational September.

  4. justicejenniferreads

    I love historical fiction. At first, I found it to be extremely daunting, but when I started reading more of it, I find it to be extremely accessible and enjoyable. The size of this book is extremely daunting, but I’m adding it to my TBR pile because of your sparking review and because I too find the Tudor time period to be exciting and incredibly interesting.

  5. Just wanted to drop in and check out your blog. It was recommended by Booktumbling.

    =)

  6. I think that historical fiction is not the term for what I love. In fact, it’s what I hate. What I love are books that are set in different eras in history. What I hate are books that fictionalize the lives of real people. I don’t know why, but I get really irritated. And yet I don’t mind it in movies.

  7. Ann

    I love Mantel, so I was just waiting to devour this and wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed. I agree though, the need to carry it everywhere with you until you’ve finished it is a back breaking issue. What i thought was most interesting was the way in which she controlled the narrative voice. Although it’s third person it is as though you are sitting right inside Cromwell’s mind, almost as if it’s a first person novel where the narrator insists on referring to himself in the third person. It was brilliantly sustained.

    • Yes you are spot on about the third voice, you do feel you are completely in the mind of Cromwell, in fact thinking about it I felt I was in the minds of all the characters, your comment just pointed that out to me.

  8. Hmm, this is the one I am intimidated by and I’m not altogether sure that I will have a chance to read it before the Booker is awarded because of the ghastly wait at the library for it still. I’m not that fussed though; I am enjoying the Booker experience thoroughly but this one does not appeal at all. I’m not really a fan of historical fiction and have never read Gregory or Heyer etc. and have no plans to. Life’s too short for reading things you don’t want to read, even if you may miss something.

    • Oh I do hope you read it as I would to hear your thoughts on it! I was so intimidated by it, I would call it a rottweiler of books, looks scary but then rolsl over on its belly for a good rub hahahaha. Ok maybe thats a bad analogy.

  9. I’m so jealous you can get this book now! The Americans have to wait until October for it to come out here. The subject matter is right up my alley. I can’t WAIT to dive in.

  10. I’ve been reading a lot about this one, so after seeing it yet again on your blog, on my list it goes. Your blog is great!

  11. Absolutely agree with everything you say. Wolf Hall is an enormous accomplishment, and I feel sure it will be a classic some day too. Oh, if only it wins the Booker Prize… I’ll be a happy bunny then.

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