Written by: Hilary Mantel
Synopsis: England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the Pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor. Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events.
Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.
A month or so ago I listed Wolf Hall on my Top 10 Tuesday books-I-should-read-but-holy-shit-they-terrify-me-and-i-just-don't-think-I-can-do-it list. A few weeks later I decided to man up and get a forklift to carry the book down off my bookcase and crack open the cover. And what happened? Well, once again I realised how ridiculous it is to let size or content scare you away, because it is almost always an AMAZING book that you're missing out on.
Like every book to every be written about England in the 16th century, Wolf Hall deals with the soap-opera that is King Henry VIII, but unlike the others that came before, that's really peripheral action. What this book is truly about is Thomas Cromwell, a man few people have more of a shadow of knowledge about. Typically he is reduced to an over-the-top villain, someone who manipulated and ployed and took pleasure destroying the lives and families of people he opposed. But who really believes that? How often do you come across a person who is wholly good or wholly evil, especially in history? This book takes you back to the start, right back to when Cromwell was a small boy with a penchant for fights, and tries to unravel the mystery wrapped in an enigma that is Thomas Cromwell.
Now, this isn't to say that Henry and his lovely (*cough, cough*) wife Anne don't feature heavily in this book. They do and they must, considering how intricately entwined Cromwell and Anne's rise to favour is. But it purposely shies away from just being another tell all tale, and dissects how much both the King and Anne grew to rely on Cromwell, even while he was still just a clerk for Cardinal Wolsey. Further, the relationship between Anne and Henry, which for all accounts seems to have consistently been unstable at best, mirrors the instability of Cromwell's career (and anyone else's I suppose). It was so easy to fall out of favour with the king, as we saw with Wolsey when he was unable to secure a church sanctioned divorce, or More when he refused to accept the switch in church head. The King was able to lift you to great heights, with him you could transform from blacksmith's son to King's chief of council or from lady to Queen, but if you fail to give him whatever it is he desires, sons, loyalty, money, youth...well, let's just hope you aren't too fond of your neck.
Moving away from Henry and Anne though, this book (I think anyway) does a stellar job filling the blanks and creating a man who isn't simply two-dimensional but is full of contradictions, and ill-made decisions, and pride and folly and a love for small dogs he calls Bella; all of those good and not so good things that make us human. Whether it's factually correct I don't know, although I know Mantel is a stickler for research, but I'm more than happy to allow for some creative allowances in order to open up a character who was always so private. One of the real beauties of this book, is that we're shown several sides of Cromwell. There's the merchant, the lawyer, the mentor, the lowly born man rising through the ranks, the confidant, the husband and father who loves his family more than the world;
"She almost never sees him; why is he here? But she trusts him and lets him lift her, without protest, into his arms. Against his shoulder she tumbles at once into sleep, her arms flung around his neck, the crown of her head tucked beneath his chin"But what I loved most about him, in the book anyway, is how preoccupied with his past he is and how others perceive him. Sure, he hides it well, but there's a seething rage barely contained any time anyone mentions his early life as the son of a blacksmith (or one of the many rumours circulating about him) and a barely covered glee when one such person gets knocked down a peg or two. He tries to be a gentleman, mostly for the advantage of his son and wards, but he can't escape his past as a angry and violent young man, and after overhearing a young musician describe him as having the face of a murderer he returns to this description at times of low self-esteem.
"I see how you would look like a lawyer. Not like a murderer, no. But if you will forgive me, master, you always looks like a man who knows how to cut up a carcase"When I first sat down and started reading this book I was a little dismayed. I found the style confronting, most likely because it has quite a modern bent but also for the first chapter or two the narration is quite removed from the action (almost like recounting a dream) so I felt so peripheral to the story and unable to get a decent hold on it. Luckily, this style settles down a bit during the guts of the story which takes place between 1520-1535. Or maybe I just got used to it. One thing that did consistently trip me up was Mantel's use of 'he' as interchangable with 'Cromwell' but then also using is as a personal pronoun to describe other people. It means having to re-read sections to work out if 'he' is Cromwell, or perhaps More, or King Henry, or Cromwell's son, or the pope or...well you get the picture. Also, and this isn't the fault of Mantel, why must everyone be called Thomas, Mary and Henry. Seriously, there are maybe four characters who don't share these first names. And when Mantel then goes on to introduce a character as Thomas More, then just Thomas, then he or Duke of Windsor (which I know More wasn't, but EXAMPLES) all in the space for half a page...well, confusion reigned.
But anyway, I really, really liked this monster of a book and can't wait to get my hands on the sequel Bring in the Bodies. If you don't like historical fiction, I doubt this one is for you, since part of the attraction is seeing the events of that era through fresh eyes and delving into a well-known, but little understood character. But who knows, the strength of the writing style, characterisation and content (there's a fair bit about life, tradition and relationships in the 16th century) might be enough to pull you over into our side (team historical fiction!). For those of you who do like historical fiction, this is a fresh, interesting and captivating look at a subject that I usually view as equal measures tiring (another tv series/movie/book? Really?) and intriguing. And if you don't come out the other side kinda loving Cromwell then you clearly read the wrong book!