Tuesday 26 October 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I've had this book a while; I got it in a set of books short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I avoided it for a bit as it had won the Man Booker Prize and I've yet to have a great reading experience with a Booker book - I usually find them hard going.  But, as I do love historical fiction and I'm on a week's holiday from work, I finally decided to give this one a shot.

Synopsis: The story of Henry VIII's divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn is the back-drop to the life story of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who managed to persuade and manipulate his way into becoming one of the most powerful men in England.

Score: 3 out of 5

This book had many strengths, the major one being Mantel's ability to make this much written about period of English history somehow seem fresh and modern.  It didn't seem like a Phillipa Gregory style period romance, or even a period book at all - the characters all jumped off the page and events seemed immediate and compelling, even though everyone knows how it was going to turn out.

The character of Cromwell was a masterpiece, he was so complex and I loved how Mantel showed the distinction between what he was thinking and what he was saying as he slowly manipulated people and got his revenge.  Although there was plenty of historical happenings and legal proceedings, these were interspersed with personal events from Cromwell's life, which gave the book a balance and broke things up a bit.

But there were definitely things I didn't like so much about the book.  It was a hard slog - whilst I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was talking as others seemed to (the 'he' pronoun causing difficulties), it's the kind of book you have to concentrate on and be fully awake to read.  I know a fair amount about this period of history but sometimes it was hard to follow all of the minor characters and the legal proceedings.

And one of the book's strengths was also it's biggest weakness - writing as Cromwell gave the book immediacy and something fresh, but it also meant there was no room for the back story of other characters.  People going into a meeting don't spend twenty minutes reviewing the life stories of all the participants in their head beforehand, and if Mantel did so the book would have seemed a bit stuffy.  Consequently, not at lot was explained and Mantel was relying on you knowing your history.  I knew a bit about Cranmer and More, but not enough.

Now that I've finished it, I'm glad I read it, but it was hard going at times.  It's like spring cleaning your house - you may find it boring at times and tough, but you love having everything sparkly clean once it's all done.  There's a sequel on the way, not sure if I will pick it up or not.


  1. Very nice review - even though it didn't quite click with you, the fact that you elevated it about a Phillipa Gregory novel is a ringing endorsement in my book! ;)

  2. @Greg Zimmerman

    I am guilty of reading and enjoying the odd Phillipa Gregory when I want something that I don't need to concentrate on too much. It's a guilty pleasure :P

    I think Wolf Hall is one of those books that would probably completely click & come alive on the second reading. There was a lot to it, probably too much for a first read.

    Thanks for following me :)

  3. Someone reccommended Wolf Hall to me but after reading your review, I don't think I'll pick it up with so many wonderful books already on my wishlist.

    Journey to the River Sea is lovely, I think I read it in year 6. I have a feeling it may go on to be a children's classic.

    Maybe you're right! It's always good to have a variety of opinions. I've borrowed Witch Child from my school library so it is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read,I'm glad you enjoyed it. The Fool's Girl is like a second generation of characters from Twelfth Night inspired Shakespeare to write the play, which was a very interesting premise as I love Twelfth Night. It also explores the world and background of Illyria more. It is definitely worth a read but I think when I read it I was very tired so didn't connect with it as much as I would have done. Look out for my review soon :D

  4. Wolf Hall has been on my TBR pile for a pile but the length of novel and the fact that I've read so many books around this period has stopped me picking up so far - plus like you I haven't enjoyed all the Booker prizes books I've read! Still not sure whether to read it but at least I have better idea of what to expect! Thanks!

  5. This is a book I wanted to read without pause once I got into it. Lots of details of the political intrigue that went on amongst the supposed conversations of Wolsey, Cromwell, Henry the VIII, and Anne Bolyne. Lots of information about the culture of living in this era and the class system.
    Allow lots of time for reading it.

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