Book review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall cover

I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the day the UK’s Public Lending Right revealed figures to show that its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was the 8th most borrowed library book in the country in 2013. Apparently this is the first Man Booker Prize-winning book to feature in the top ten and shows the wide appeal of Mantel’s books.

I realise I am rather behind the curve as far as Wolf Hall reviews go, but having finally made the time to read it, I thought I would write up my thoughts anyway. I have been slow to read this as historical fiction about Tudor England is not something I would generally choose. This book might just have changed that for me and I am looking forward to reading Bring Up the Bodies too.

The characters Mantel builds in Wolf Hall are hugely rich and, given the wide cast and their largely dislikeable actions, this is an impressive feat. Thomas Cromwell takes centre stage through the book and I grew to love Mantel’s phrasing when ‘‘He, Cromwell,” was speaking or doing something in a busy scene. This nudges the reader through complex narrative and dialogue, and at the same time foregrounds Cromwell’s ego against the many others in the room.

My bookshelf (virtual and otherwise) shows that I do tend to read more books written by women and these often, but not exclusively, have central female characters. In many ways, Mantel’s book is a his-story, which is largely a product of its central character. On top of that, most of the main actors are male and since we all know how many wives Henry VIII got through, even Anne Boleyn could be forgiven for struggling to hold her place in the book. Given this and the presumably smaller amount of historic information about minor female characters, Mantel’s treatment is well balanced and engaging.

I cannot comment on how historically accurate any of the book is but I thoroughly enjoyed its portrayal of behind the scenes at a pivotal moment in British history. My need to know what happened next in such an epic novel is testament to the narrative and writing, not least because, as far as major facts go, we all know what happened next even beyond this book and into its sequel. Perhaps that is part of the appeal but Mantel’s success is in taking us with her on the tortuous journey.

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