Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This review is over the top, but, then, I confess to being a WOLF HALL junkie, reading the book straight through twice on a kindle, buying the paperback, flipping through the pages, underlining favorite passages, listening to the audio version again and again, finding peace in the rhythm of its prose.

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel is a magnificent novel, a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell. Except for early scenes involving Thomas’s youthful break with his family, the novel’s present spans from 1500 to Thomas More’s beheading in 1535.

Son of a Putney blacksmith, Cromwell in this novel makes good in the service of his cardinal, his king, his church. He survived the disgrace of his mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, becoming one of Henry VIII’s most powerful ministers, a member of his inner circle. As Wolsey’s secretary and legal advisor, he oversaw the dissolution of the monasteries. As Henry’s confidante and minister, he supported the king’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the break with the pope, Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

The structure of the novel is a delicacy, a story told not always chronologically. The prose is a delight, the author’s grasp of language and of history, prodigious.

My favorite character, other than Cromwell, is the cardinal, and the playful scenes between him and Cromwell I read or listen to again and again.

But what makes the novel great for me is the unfolding complexity of Cromwell’s character, through masterful dialogue, through the juxtaposition of scenes chronicling his rise to power with those presaging his demise, but especially in Cromwell’s reflections on loss, gain, life. And in Thomas’s mind we hear Renaissance man thinking almost as if he were a modern. In the character’s descriptions of his years on the continent, his interior monologues become intimate episodes of storytelling. Thomas Cromwell is comfortable in his many skins:

“He Thomas, also Tomos, Tommaso and Thomaes Cromwell, withdraws his past selves into his present body and edges back to where he was before. His single shadow slides against the wall, a visitor not sure of his welcome. Which of these Thomases saw the blow coming? There are moments when a memory moves right through you.”

Through the protagonist’s dealings with More, Norfolk, Wolsey, King Henry VIII; in the tender, domestic scenes with his family, and in his compassion for those who suffered during Henry’s courtship and brief marriage to Anne Boleyn—Catherine and her daughter, Mary, even with the imprisoned More—we come to know the many faces of Thomas Cromwell.

The book ends with Cromwell’s half-formed plan to visit Wolf Hall shortly after the beheading of Thomas More. Does the reader hear the faint approach of Cromwell’s fall from favor, or is it just that history gets in our way?

Interesting how our vocabulary responds, providing us with words we have never needed before, words stacked away for us, neatly folded into our brain and there for our use: like a bride’s lifetime supply of linen, or a ducal trove of monogrammed china. Death will overtake us before a fraction of those words are used.

Two more of my favorite passages:

He will remember his first sight of the open sea: a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream.

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.

Needless to say, I’m waiting for the sequel.

My Rating: 5 Stars

You can buy the book on Amazon.


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