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Booker Magic is Back: Wolf Hall

Well, it certainly is daunting.
Wolf Hall feels h_e_a_v_y both literally and figuratively.

The book clocks in at 500+ pages and doesn’t exactly welcome you in with warm arms–there’s a character list that covers 5 pages and two family trees of The Tudors and the Yorkist Claimants. Before I even started I was feeling a bit weary…
Can I keep all of this straight???

Conjure up any vague recollection of your European History class. That helps. Knowing what happens to Henry’s first wife Katherine, Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More will guide you. (Even for those who don’t remember, let me just categorically state these three aren’t the poster children of ultimate success). Be aware that there is just a lot of action to track.

And be warned that Mantel uses the word ‘he’ to constantly refer to her main character, Thomas Cromwell, even if it is slightly confusing to the reader:

“He says something, the cardinal says something. They break off. Two sentences go nowhere. The cardinal resumes his chair. He hesitates before him; he sits down.”

You come to realize that ‘he’ is always Cromwell (and the Cardinal, for example, will be referred to as such). It means I had to sometimes re-read a passage to follow the action. I can’t say I have seen this before and I can’t say I really liked it–but you end up just rolling it with.

Okay. With that behind us.
Don’t let it dissuade you.

This is one juicy tale. The drama only accelerates as you get deeper into the book.

I crawled into bed at 2am –not able to put off the end until morning.
I found myself yearning to do a quick brush up on wikipedia on my facts, but not wanting to ruin the ending. (Which was sort of crazy….wasn’t I vaguely certain of what was to happen????).

Even for those of you who don’t love history (and I do), let’s be clear. Henry VIII’s insistence on a new wife and his willingness to break with the Roman Catholic church to realize his divorce….this is good shtuff. And it’s made even better by the thought that Henry didn’t come up with these brilliant ideas on his own. There is another mind at work.

So here’s what I loved. While events are always recorded, it’s the people that make history come alive. And no doubt, we can’t forget this is a novel. But Hilary Mantel does one thing fantastically, and that is, turn Wolf Hall into a master study in a single character: Thomas Cromwell.

Historically speaking, Cromwell has always been viewed as something of a snake–opportunistic, manipulative and yes, evil. Wolf Hall gives us another look, offers up some nuance that makes us think (even if momentarily) a bit differently. Through her eyes, Cromwell is a survivor. He is forward-thinking, he is unjudgemental and, even more generously, the ultimate self-made entrepreneur. Make no mistake, Cromwell is a man who knows how to get **it done. Which is why, despite a lower class birthright, he becomes the right-hand man and confidante to Henry VIII–much to the horror of the Dukes and Lords who kiss Henry’s ring.

His cunning is likable. Sort of.

No doubt, Wolf Hall takes some work.
Reading in nice long stretches (a luxury) and bookmarking the character list allowed me to savor it, rather than the alternative.

But ooooh the payoff was grand.

For other perspectives…..
The best review of this book I read in the New Yorker.
The author herself reading for the BBC.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Well, now that I have read your latest post, I am going back to Wolf Hall (am at about page 100…). Love the understatement of the drama. Mantel presents Cromwell as one cool-ass dude – you definitely hit it with the “suvivor” descriptor. “He” can handle anything. But the language, cast of characters, and temporal shifting can feel a little daunting at times, so thanks for the encouragement!
    XO,
    Regan

    January 19, 2010
    • katykeim #

      Stick with it!!! I think it’s worth it. And definitely not a beach read (good for a Parisian Cafe, though : )

      January 19, 2010
  2. I strategically gave this book to my father as a Christmas present, knowing that he’d pass it on to me when he’s done. (Does that make me a bad daughter or a selfish gift-giver? Or both? Oh well!) I cannot wait to read it, even if the last few Booker winners have left me feeling half-full.

    January 20, 2010
    • katykeim #

      It makes you smart. It’s just a long time to wait cuz it’s a long read…..

      January 23, 2010
  3. Terri M #

    Thomas More is a saint. Now I call that ultimate success!

    February 1, 2010
    • You certainly don’t get a sense in the book that he should be a saint. Martyr, but not a saint….

      February 1, 2010
  4. Cynthia Dunn #

    Bought it. Can’t wait to read it. A wonderful essay about it in this month’s The Atlantic by Christopher Hitchens.

    February 19, 2010
    • Thanks–just read the review. It seems like there is general agreement that Mantel will have a sequel coming…..thank goodness.

      February 20, 2010

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