Well, since I was still in the mood for historical fiction set in Tudor times (after reading C. J. Sansom’s excellent “Heartstone“), I thought that I’d check out a rather famous novel from 2009 called “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel.
This was a book that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield during a book-shopping trip last April (and, yes, I write these articles/reviews quite far in advance) and, since I’d heard of this novel before and was in a Tudor mood, I decided to check it out.
So, let’s take a look at “Wolf Hall”. I suppose I should point out that this review will contain some SPOILERS. But, if you know a little bit about the history, then you’ll know what happens in this book anyway.
The novel begins in Putney in 1500, when a teenage boy called Tom is being brutally beaten by his drunken father. After barely surviving the ordeal, he decides to flee to mainland Europe and make his living as a soldier.
Years later, in the 1520s, Thomas Cromwell is back in England and is now both a lawyer and the right-hand man of the influential Cardinal Wolsey. The main business at the Royal Court is King Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. In order to achieve this, Henry has to get an annulment from Pope Clement. Needless to say, this is a rather complicated business.
And, whilst all of this is going on, Cardinal Wolsey begins to fall from favour with the king. Yet, thanks to Cromwell’s skills, resilience and intellect, Cromwell finds that he still retains some importance at the Royal Court. Not only that, he slowly begins to gain more influence and power than Wolsey ever had…
One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, when I bought it, the shopkeeper praised it before pointing out that it was “complicated”. At the time, I foolishly thought “I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age‘, I’ll be fine” or something like that. Of course, I underestimated this book.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a good novel – but don’t let the modern-style, linear and relatively fast-paced opening chapter lull you into a false sense of security. This is not an easily readable, fast or relaxing book. In other words, you’ll need to pay attention whilst reading it.
One of the things that this novel does is to present time in a non-linear way. In other words, there are lots of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks. Likewise, the chapters aren’t always in chronological order either.
This novel can jump back and forth from year to year within the space of a couple of pages and, unless you’re paying attention, it can get very confusing very quickly. However, I can see why Mantel chose to do this. Not only does it mimic the way that memory itself works (after all, we rarely remember things in a linear, logical order), but it also allows for a lot of extra background detail too.
And, yes, this is very much a literary novel in this respect. Whilst “Wolf Hall” thankfully does have a plot, it is more of a novel about people, themes, ideas and the general atmosphere of part of history than it is a traditional story. And, in this respect, it works reasonably well.
It slowly builds up a large, rich, intricate tapestry of life that is really interesting to experience. Likewise, given that the number of political schemes in this novel could give “Game Of Thrones” a run for it’s money, this level of descriptive and human complexity really helps to add drama to the story too.
Likewise, the novel’s characters are absolutely brilliant too. Although Thomas Cromwell is the central focus of the story, all of the many other characters are presented as realistic, complicated people with different motivations. Seriously, if there is one thing that this novel does really well, it is characterisation. This is the kind of novel where you can literally feel how Cromwell misses Wolsey, how his rough early life has influenced his older self etc…
The novel’s more famous historical characters are also portrayed in some rather interesting ways too. Cromwell is presented as competent, resilient, intelligent and (relatively) benevolent. Catherine Of Aragon is presented as pious, stubborn and tragic. Cardinal Wolsey is presented as kindly, rich and paternalistic. Mary Tudor is presented as frail and meek. Elizabeth Tudor is an infant. Anne Boleyn is presented as mysterious, calculating and spiteful. Thomas More is portrayed as cruel and stubborn. Wriothsley is presented as an amiable, annoying, ambitious and mildly untrustworthy. And Henry VIII is, of course, Henry VIII.
Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. Although it is mostly a novel about the nature of power, it is also a novel about the religious turmoil of the 16th century, a novel about death and a lot of other things. Seriously, in thematic terms, this is a literary novel in the best sense of the word.
One fascinating theme (if you read “Wolf Hall” these days), is that the novel makes it very clear that 16th century England was a European country.
Not only does Thomas Cromwell speak at least six different languages (English, Welsh, French, German, Italian and Latin), but London is realistically shown to be a rather cosmopolitan place where people from across Europe live and do business. Likewise, Cromwell’s memory of his time in Italy, France etc.. during his youth helps him out a lot.
Although the novel doesn’t shy away from Henry VIII’s complicated relationship with Europe, it is surprisingly refreshing to see an “everyday” version of England that is so at ease with Europe. Where people speak multiple languages without a second thought (and, yes, this may make a few small parts of the novel confusing. I could understand most of the French dialogue but, due to my even more basic/limited knowledge of German, at least one line of dialogue was a complete mystery to me), where there is no silly scaremongering about immigration and where people care about what happens on the continent etc…
In terms of the writing, Mantel’s writing style will probably take you a while to get used to. Yes, this novel’s third-person narration is filled with numerous brilliant descriptions, quite a few clever chapter titles and lots of wonderfully deep sentences. However, there are a number of annoying stylistic quirks that can get in the way of the story slightly.
For example, Mantel will sometimes just refer to Cromwell as “he” without introducing him first. So, some scenes can get confusing if you don’t realise that Cromwell is supposed to be present. Plus, sometimes, Mantel doesn’t use speech marks for dialogue (although this usually isn’t too confusing). Likewise, Mantel will sometimes do things like introduce a piece of dialogue by just stating the character’s name (without speech tags, like in a play/film script). Still, once you get used to Mantel’s style, this novel becomes more readable and will seem more well-written.
In terms of length and pacing, this is a very long (650 pages!) and very slow-paced novel. How I read this in less than five days, I’ll never know! Although the story never quite gets boring, don’t expect it to be a gripping thriller either. Reading this book is like running a marathon. Still, that said, it is quite a satisfying read, even though the story sometimes moves at an almost glacial pace (especially with the frequent flashback scenes etc.. I mentioned earlier in this review).
All in all, whilst this is a good novel, don’t go into it expecting an easy, quick and relaxing read. This novel is quite satisfying to read and it is also one of those novels that is worth reading for the prestige of having read it. Even so, the structure and style of this story can border on confusing at times. So, be sure to pay attention whilst reading. Anyway, I think that the next book I’ll review will be a nice relaxing thriller novel about vampires or something like that.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.