Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009

Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

Borrowed from my local library.

This book will be on my top 10 list for 2010.  It may even be my favorite book of the year.  Wait, you ask, it is only the middle of January, how can you say that?  I say that because Mantel has created a world so full and rich that I didn’t want to leave it.  She has given me a place as vivid as the streets of my own city, as lively as my favorite café.  She has introduced me to characters that I want to talk to, that I wish to comfort and, sometimes, to scream at.

Of course, that is impossible, we are centuries and worlds apart.  After all, this is fiction.  Immersed in the history of early 16th century Britain, Mantel tells the story of one man, Thomas Cromwell.   With roots in the lower class, Cromwell, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, rises  to become a confidant to Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII.  Eventually Cromwell becomes the King’s chief minister  and the enemy of  Thomas More, staunch supporter of the Pope.  Henry, afraid of dying without a legitimate heir, wishes to annul his first marriage and marry another.  There are multiple threads of politics, sex and double-dealing and, of course, the King’s battle with the Catholic Church.  But this book is so much more than another fictionalized account of that time in history.

Wolf Hall is dense, dark and rich in a way that made me slow down my reading and savor every page.  What I really want to do here is quote many passages that leaped out at me but I will limit myself to a few.

An introduction to young Thomas Cromwell:

He is surprised.  Are there people in the world who are not cruel to their children?  For the first time the weight in his chest shifts a little; he thinks, there could be other places, better.  He talks; he tells them about Bella, and they look sorry, and they don’t say anything stupid like, you can get another dog.  He tells them about the Pegasus, and about his father’s brewhouse and how Walter gets fined for bad beer at least twice a year.  He tells them about how he gets fines for stealing wood, cutting down other peoples trees, and about the too-many sheep he runs on the commons…from page 12.

After he loses his wife to fever:

For a month he is at home: he reads.  He reads his Testament, but he knows what it says.  he reads Petrarch, whom he loves, reads how he defied the doctors: when they had given him up to fever he lived still, and when they came back in the morning, he was sitting up writing.  The poet never trusted any doctor after that; but Liz left him too fast for physician’s advice, good or bad, or for the apothecary with his cassia, his galingale, his wormwood, and his printed cards with prayers on.  From page 86

On viewing a carpet at Thomas More’s house:

It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure.  But next time, he thinks, take me with you.  His hand skims the surface, rich and soft.  The flaw in the weave hardly matters.  A turkey carpet is not an oath.  There are some people in the world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins.  He is both these kinds of person.  He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight.  Leases, writs, statutes, all are written to be read, and each person reads them by the light of self-interest.  More says, “What do you think, gentlemen?  Walk on it, or hang it on the wall?”

“Walk on it.”

“Thomas, your luxurious tastes!”  And they laugh.  You would think they were friends.  From pages 187/188.

Cromwell observing King Henry:

You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing.  Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more.  Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child, sometimes master of his trade.  Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move.  If he had been called to a lower station in live, he could have been a traveling player, and leader of his troupe.  From page 357

Mantel places Cromwell in the third person and some readers find this difficult.  It did not really bother me.  I rather enjoy the rhythm of shifting from Cromwell’s thoughts to observing him from some close vantage point. The only part I found awkward was trying to keep track of the different Royal lineages, and Mantel, or her editors, have graciously placed a list of characters and the Tudor and Yorkist family trees at the front of the book.

I find it hard to say more about Wolf Hall.  I really love Mantel’s style, her intelligence, and her trust in my abilities as a reader.  I will read this book again.

Other reviews:

As usual, I Need More Bookshelves


Boston Bibliophile

Fleur Fisher Reads

Savidge Reads

Did I miss yours?


Filed under 2010 Global Reading Challenge, Booker, Challenges2010, Historical Fiction, New Authors 2010, Notable Books

23 responses to “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  1. lena

    This book is definitely inching its way to the top of my list. I wish I could buy it rather than being on the library’s list.

    It’s very curious how many folks have already read their favorite books of the year, and it is already January… (: I’m really glad you enjoyed it so much.

    • Lena –
      Wolf Hall will definitely be in my top ten list for 2010. I think you will enjoy it. I’m planning on buying a copy when it comes out in paperback so I can read it again.

  2. I have found that the really good ones come right at the beginning or right at the end of the year. Why is that?

    I think I’ve said this before, but I haven’t quite built up my stamina or bravery to read this. This is not my genre. And I’m not very patient with long books unless I’m completely enthralled. I’m not ruling it out though. You all are working on me!

  3. I really had no plans to read this book, but if you’re saying it’s your favorite of the year and it’s only January…well, I just might have to check it out at some point.

    • Anna-
      It’s funny, when I read the description of Wolf Hall I was a bit curious about it and, never having read Mantel before, I decided to give it a try. I am very glad I did.

  4. I’m buying it as soon as it comes out in paperback! So excited. I can tell it’ll be one I’ll love. Thanks for a great post!

    • Emily –
      I think you’ll love Wolf Hall and I can’t wait to see what you have to say about it. I was thrilled to read an historical novel that I found enticing and intellegent, particularly after reading Kristin Lavransdatter.

  5. All the characters are making my head hurt! I love the book, but find I can only read it in small doses. And I keep having to google some of the characters so I can put it all in perspective.

  6. This is in my 2010 plans and now more excited because you love it so much! Excited!! Thanks!!

  7. I LOVED this book when I read it last year (review here: http://aartichapati.blogspot.com/2009/10/wolf-hall.html) I am so glad you did, too. It was nice to feel empathy for Cromwell for once :-)

  8. Well, I’m sold. I’ve been on the fence about this book, but now I’m going to keep an eye out for it. The passages you quoted are absolutely gorgeous.

    • Memory – Wolf Hall is a big, dense book with, what I find to be, unforgettable language. I really do want to turn around and read it again.

  9. Ti

    Wolf Hall made my book club’s list this year. Some of the members are worried about its length. Is it a well-paced read or does it take a bit of time to get through? I know that some chunksters you can fly through whereas others, not so much.

    • Ti – When I first started reading Wolf Hall I felt I would fly through it but soon found myself slowing down in order to really take in what I was reading. I think speed will depend on what an individual wants to take from the book.

  10. Excellent review! I’m looking forward to reading Wolf Hall soon!

  11. seana

    I was already very interested in this one and you’ve helped bump it further up the TBR pile. I’ve read a bit of Mantel already, but I don’t think I’ve managed to finish anything. Not a flaw on the author’s part, rather of mine.

    Thanks for an inspiring review.

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