Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

WolfhallI finished Wolf Hall. It took forever, but it was worth it. Henry the VIII, guys! So many wives! Possibly a genetic disorder! What a guy, what a time. This book is actually not about him.

It's about his chief minister and enabler, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell as written by Hilary Mantel is a fascinating character: a self-made man who rose from the bottom of society to the very top, a capitalist, a pragmatist, and an alarmingly talented politician. Cromwell is known for several things, principal among them engineering England's split with the Catholic church so Henry VIII could marry Anne Boleyn, and for being a really huge jerk to Thomas More (although here More is the jerk). He's generally been regarded as a nebulous, dark, unheroic character, but Mantel brings him to life with so much sympathy. Her choice of Cromwell as a character is a pretty bold one. I really liked her intimate approach to historical fiction; so much of the book is just about Cromwell's household. When a character falls from grace, we hear about how he's forced to move to a terrible house, and make do with cheap food and the few servants who stay with him out of loyalty. History is a hazy thing, I guess, to the people living through it, and most of our days really are occupied with errands and not-very-impressive concerns about vermin infestations and our pets. 

One thing that has gotten a ton of praise is Mantel's spotty usage of proper names. She just uses pronouns all the time, even when there are several characters those pronouns could be referring to. I don't know how I feel about it. I thought it was pretty confusing. Not insurmountable, just…difficult. It gave the book this odd quality though…like I was reading someone's diary or something not quite meant to be read. I thought at one point that if someone was narrating his own life in the third person, this is exactly what it would sound like. There was an immediacy that was interesting. I did feel like I missed a lot though, in my confusion, and the constant re-reading cut into the momentum of the story, and on top of everything else, the cast of characters is so large. Sometimes I had no idea who was being talked to or about. 

Still, this is such a refreshing take on Henry the VIII and his whole dramarama. I mean, I hope someone adapts this into a Showtime series. So much better.


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