“A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” (294)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is 532 pages, and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for 2009. It takes place primarily during the courtship and early marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but Thomas Cromwell is the protagonist of the book. Mantel gives new life to an oft told story by portraying Cromwell sympathetically (which has never been done before to my knowledge) and by demonstrating the chess game that was life for those struggling to gain footing in the tumultuous and radically fragile society of sixteenth century England.
Let me say out of the gate that if you think you’ll like this book because you like historical fiction in the style of Philippa Gregory, you are mistaken. Wolf Hall is detailed, academic, and complicated. Mantel’s book, while extremely witty and readable, is work to read. I happen to enjoy reading that feels as if it’s been assigned for a college class, but if you don’t, this book isn’t for you.
Imagine a wave in the ocean. It starts far off shore as the result of earthly rotation or the movement of a large animal, and slowly gains momentum, merging with other currents, gaining power, speed, and size, and culminates in a dramatic crash on shore. Wolf Hall is a wave. It takes time for it to gain its full momentum, but the result is awe inspiring.
Mantel creates an intricate and layered character in Thomas Cromwell. She builds a solid foundation of sympathy for this notoriously unsympathetic man, and each time the reader begins to negatively judge him, Mantel pulls us back in favor of him with his thoughts, words, or actions. He shows incredible steadiness of temperament and gentleness towards the members of his household, but can also be threatening, cold, and shrewd when dealing with others around court. Cromwell’s confidence resounds through the book, but when Anne Boleyn gives birth to a girl, it begins to waiver. When Henry has Thomas More executed, it becomes clear that Cromwell, Anne, and all the players around the king are just pawns in his game. “Inveterate scrappers. Wolves snapping over a carcass. Lions fighting over Christians.” (439)
What I found most interesting about Wolf Hall was the presence of Mantel in the book itself. When you feel the author it’s typically a bad sign, but not in this case. Mantel’s voice could be heard throughout the text, almost as if she were a courtier–sly, cunning, sharp, teasing, gossiping, flirting, shocking. From reading Wolf Hall I’m sure of two things: one, I want to meet Hilary Mantel, and two, I’m a little afraid of her.
For those of you who like to be challenged by what you read, I recommend this book. It’s a work of genius, and it’s worth the effort. For more on the book from Mantel, herself, check out this link.