Hilary Mantel sets a new standard for historical fiction with her latest novel Wolf Hall, a riveting portrait of Thomas Cromwell, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and a significant political figure in Tudor England. Mantel’s crystalline style, piercing eye and interest in, shall we say, the darker side of human nature, together with a real respect for historical accuracy, make this novel an engrossing, enveloping read (it’s also the favorite to win this year’s Booker Prize).
Wolf Hall is set in an England on the brink of disaster. It is 1520 and Henry VIII, desiring a male heir, wishes to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn, despite the opposition of half his kingdom, the Pope and much of Europe. Meanwhile, the Yorks are plotting to put one of their own on the throne. Into the middle of this turbulence walks Thomas Cromwell, lowly born but protected by the king’s advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell was a financier with a brilliant grasp of international politics. Multi-lingual and self-taught, both ruthless and generous, he quickly surpassed even Wolsey as close confidante to the king and built up a coterie of followers that equaled any modern Mafia don. In the novel—as in his life—as Cromwell grows in power, the danger and intrigue does as well. Knowing the trajectory of his career, familiar to many from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, in no way interferes with the deliciousness of the unfolding tragedy.
The Tudor period has been over-romanticized in books and films, especially lately, but Mantel keeps her focus less on the heaving bosoms and changing bed partners and more on the corruption, the scheming and the petty cruelties. She writes in the present tense, a device that in lesser hands might seem showy and self-conscious, but here propels the action forward while providing great insight into Cromwell’s personality. With a generous cast of characters and meticulous descriptions of castle, town and countryside, Mantel evokes the era with an unfussy ease. Despite the length and the intricacy of the story told, there is a freshness and rigor to this compelling novel that will delight and engage any reader.Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
As Henry VIII's go-to man for his dirty work, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) isn't a likely candidate for a sympathetic portrait. He dirtied his hands too often. In the end, Henry dropped him just as he had Cromwell's mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, who counseled the king before him. But as Mantel (Beyond Black) reminds us, Cromwell was a man of many parts, admirable in many respects though disturbing in others. Above all, he got things done and was deeply loyal to his masters, first Wolsey and then the king. Nor was Henry always bloated and egomaniacal: well into his forties, when in good spirits, the king shone brighter than all those around him. VERDICT Longlisted for the Booker Prize, this is in all respects a superior work of fiction, peopled with appealing characters living through a period of tense high drama: Henry's abandonment of wife and church to marry Anne Boleyn. It should appeal to many readers, not just history buffs. And Mantel achieves this feat without violating the historical record! There will be few novels this year as good as this one. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/09; history buffs may also enjoy reading Robert Hutchinson's biography, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister, reviewed on p. 66.--Ed.]--David Keymer, Modesto, CA[Page 51]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Henry VIII's challenge to the church's power with his desire to divorce his queen and marry Anne Boleyn set off a tidal wave of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century Europe. Mantel boldly attempts to capture the sweeping internecine machinations of the times from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who became one of Henry's closest advisers. Cromwell's actual beginnings are historically ambiguous, and Mantel admirably fills in the blanks, portraying Cromwell as an oft-beaten son who fled his father's home, fought for the French, studied law and was fluent in French, Latin and Italian. Mixing fiction with fact, Mantel captures the atmosphere of the times and brings to life the important players: Henry VIII; his wife, Katherine of Aragon; the bewitching Boleyn sisters; and the difficult Thomas More, who opposes the king. Unfortunately, Mantel also includes a distracting abundance of dizzying detail and Henry's all too voluminous political defeats and triumphs, which overshadows the more winning story of Cromwell and his influence on the events that led to the creation of the Church of England. (Oct.)[Page 40]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.