Wolf Hall (Review)

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Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel, 2009
640pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2010

Brilliant! How did she do it? Hilary Martel took a figure much maligned in history—and historical fiction—and transformed him into one of literature's most likeable characters. The results won her the Man Booker Prize (see impressive gold seal on cover).

Wolf Hall uses the eyes of Thomas Cromwell to recount the political upheaval —throughout England and all of Europe—wrought by Henry's desire for Anne Boleyn. It is Cromwell who ultimately devises the means for Henry's divorce, remarriage, and transference of title as Queen upon Anne.

Cromwell becomes all things to all people: friend, advisor, strategist, benefactor, mentor, and family man: ambitious but always fair. He also becomes the butt of insults: his noble "betters" feel incumbent to remind him—perpetually—of his lowly birth. (We readers, though, are left in no doubt as to where true nobility lies.)

The fun of this book is in following Cromwell, from abuse at the hand of his drunken father, through his stunning rise in power. It's deliciously satisfying to watch brilliance and cleverness play out to the benefit of our hero.

The surprise villain in this book is the saintly Sir Thomas More, who, as Mantel depicts him, is cold, distant, priggish—and who tortures heretics (those who would read the Bible in English) with a barely discernable pleasure. Anne Boleyn fairs little better: she is high-handed, petulant and demanding.

Wolf Hall
is a rich and wide-ranging portrait of the Tudor-Boleyn era with its nascent Protestantism and middle class. Mantel manages to breathe life into complex political maneuvers and self-interested players. Though hardly a breezy read—it can drag in places—the author has created a singular and engaging character in Thomas Cromwell. I highly recommend Wolf Hall.

See our Reading Guide for Wolf Hall.


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