Book Review: “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

January 14, 2010

Wolf Hall concerns a much-studied time. Writers have plundered the intriguing reign of King Henry VIII and his storied serial wives from hundreds of angles, both academic and artistic. But Hilary Mantel does something new: In this story we have a novel that is, in a certain way, the story of the birth of bureaucracy, centered on a person historians usually skirt around in a rush to more legendary (or, seemingly, interesting) figures.

Thomas Cromwell: the no-nonsense, somewhat lumbering, suave, even-keeled, rags-to-riches right hand man to the King. Mantel tells of the world to which Cromwell serves as a sort of axis, making a photo-realistic and believable diorama of 16th-century London, elegantly faceting the most realistic modern-not-modern characters I have ever laid eyes on.

The story spans from the drawn-out end of Catherine of Aragon’s tenure as queen to the suggestion of Anne Boleyn’s ultimate demise (Mantel’s story ends just as this outcome becomes subtly sketched out), centering on the fall of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry’s fight to be married to Anne.

Mantel can’t make the politics straightforward because they weren’t. In the fashion of high school cliques or cubicle intrigue, someone is always snubbing someone and someone is always falling out of favor and someone is always rising into it–and keeping these shifting relationships straight is a task left heavily on the reader’s shoulders. Mantel gives us a dramatis personae and a couple of family trees at the novel’s outset: You will be referring to these constantly and still will feel slightly lost.

Mantel has Cromwell point out that “half the world is named Thomas” and this vagueness of character stretches into actions and dialogue. Cromwell is almost never referred to by name; he is always “he” except in the direst of ambiguous passages, where the occasional “he, Cromwell,” saves us, to some extent, from bafflement. This can be frustrating. There are Thomases, Henrys, Annes and Marys. Sometimes you get the sense that even those characters buried in the fray forget who they’re talking about or at.

Mantel stays out of the way. Not only does she leave the confusion of the cast of characters hanging in its own gravitational field, she also manages to give the book a sense of being without a narrator; we feel like impartial observers to an impartial rendering of scenes and actions. We feel like we are looking at it ourselves.

Occasionally we drift into Cromwell’s thoughts while he muses (yet he is never sentimental; Mantel is too good for that) on his role as mentor, or on the quick, brutal losses of his wife and children that poke back into his consciousness from time to time. It’s perfect: Mantel walks the line between the brutal, short, often wretched lives of early modern Englishmen and the danger of overemphasis or modern dismay. She gives the squalor and discomfort about as much attention as you would imagine someone would who lived in it day after day. Her characters may flick a fly off of a table or have their hair too tightly pulled back or accidentally trip over a stool; they might briefly consider a witnessed disembowelment or titter about forced sexual encounters. But their reactions seem very much their own: products of stunningly elegant character development.

Cromwell’s repeated concern that he “looks like a murderer” belies his outward appearance of nonchalance about advancement. To the outsider, he looks maddeningly like one of those people who have wild success without a lick of effort, while foppish and foolish courtesans flutter around hopelessly and suffer disgrace–sometimes fatally–when missing aim in social trajectory.’

There are interesting twists on historical treatments. Thomas More, usually portrayed as a mild-mannered visionary, is here a sanctimonious thug who oversees the torture of religious dissidents. This during a time when you could be burned at the stake for being in possession of a Bible in English. Henry, a figure all too easy to make into a caricature, has a delicacy of expression that is surprising. And even the evildoers–like More–are not so easy to file under “bad guy.” Cromwell and More share dinners together, philosophical talks, alongside their bitter and ultimately fatal rivalry. It’s as if, instead of generated characters, we are looking at real human beings.

Winner of the 2009 Booker Prize

Note: Amazon is currently holding what amounts to a fire sale on this book. You can get it in hardback for $11! Suggested you buy it before it goes more expensive or paperback?

4.5 stars
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