Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Historical Book Review: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I had the pleasure of reading Hilary Mantel’s latest release, Man Booker prize for fiction winner, Wolf Hall, and a truly genuine pleasure it was. I am now a great fan of Ms. Mantel and will be perusing her other works in the very near future.

Jacketflap Blurb:

In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power.

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.

Author Bio:

Hilary Mantel is the author of nine previous novels, including A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Winner of the Hawthornden Prize, she reviews for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England.

My Review:
To read Wolf Hall is to be a fly on the wall of the Tudor court, and the very very close friend and confidant of one Thomas Cromwell, a man who came from nothing to becoming one of the most powerful and influential men in King Henry VIII’s court. The reader is drawn into his world, privy to his intimate thoughts and memories… Ms. Mantel paints a perfect picture of the Tudor era and its people. Tapestries with vivid colors, textures and scenes grace the walls, jewels, fabrics, clothes, meals all drawn out so you as a reader “see” what Cromwell sees, taste what he tastes, hear what he hears, and feel what he feels. We have a realistic view of what happened—not sugar coated like a marzipan doll. There was sickness, death, fickle leaders, religious fanatics, the constant worry of whether or not you were in favor. You had to have your eyes and ears focused at once in front of you, but never take your focus from behind either.

Her study of the real life characters is obvious in their gestures, facial expressions and words. It’s almost as if while reading, you travel through time and experience the story for yourself. As a person obsessed and enthralled with history, the Tudor era in particular, I was impressed to say the least.

I liked her depiction of Cromwell. From most sources, both fiction and non-fiction, he often comes off as a cold, hard figure, calculating, which he was, but he was also a person. In Ms. Mantel’s point of view, he is still all of those things yet mindful of others. He cares for his family, for the people of London and beyond. He is charitable, a patron of the arts, a lover, father, friend. In her version of Thomas Cromwell, he works for himself, but also has the constant question on his lips, whether he voices it or not, “Do I look like a murderer?” Having this thought makes him infinitely more human.

Each time I sat down to read, the pages flew by as I was quickly drawn in and held captive by the eloquent, yet dark, starkly real and sometimes bawdy words written by Ms. Mantel. She is a literary genius with a writing style I haven’t seen done in a long time, if ever. It was like watching a realistic play, acted out on a stage inside my mind. Her voice is alive and unique, her research well done, her story intriguing, characters superb.

Wolf Hall is filled with dozens of life-like characters, based on courtiers from Henry’s court. They take you through an epic journey across almost six-hundred pages. Ms. Mantel is bold in her ability to build these characters and their actions through research and her creative writing talents.

I highly recommend Wolf Hall to readers of historical fiction, especially those as enchanted with Tudor history as I am. In fact, this book will remain upfront and center on my bookshelf—I plan on reading it again and again.

Buy link


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderfully researched and written book. English royalty and the upper echelon of those who worked for them seem to have lived by such a very different set of rules. The intrigues of court life can at times be almost unbelievable. It seemed anything could be made to happen sop the results would suit those in power. I'll be looking for this book. It seems more than worth a careful read.

Eliza Knight said...

It was a great book! Let me know what you think of it when you read it.