* CONTAINS SPOILERS
Written by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall won in 2009 both the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2010, the book won the Walter Scott Prize and The Morning News Tournament of Books. Hilary Mantel spent five years researching and writing the book.
Wolf Hall is the first in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell during the reign of King Henry VIII of England. The book depicts Cromwell’s life from working class runaway to powerful minister. Cromwell is despised and mistrusted by many at court, although everyone has to admit there’s something about him that can’t be ignored. In the beginning, he is the right-hand man to Cardinal Wolsey but soon forced to watch the painful downfall of this beloved friend and mentor. After the Cardinal’s death, Cromwell enters politics and strategically builds up the goodwill and favour of those at court, gaining power and rising in the ranks. He eventually becomes the trusted advisor, dealmaker and strong arm to not only King Henry, but also his future queen, Anne Boleyn. He assists King Henry in successfully obtaining a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and advocating the Protestant Reformation which would see the English church break away from Rome. The book ends with the death of Cromwell’s nemesis, Thomas More, a man he both disliked and admired.
Holy schmoley, characters abound in Wolf Hall! Even with Hilary Mantel’s chart at the beginning of the book, I was often confused about who was who. Sometimes Cromwell didn’t refer to characters consistently throughout the book; he used their first name or their title or his pet name for them. It also doesn’t help that so many characters are a Thomas or Henry or Mary or Anne. Confused much?
I’m going to focus solely on our protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, because I thought he was pretty awesome. In history, Cromwell is known for being cunning and ruthlessly ambitious, so I thought Hilary Mantel’s decision to characterize him in Wolf Hall as someone misunderstood and underrated very interesting. I have always admired self-made people who make something from nothing with their lives. Cromwell goes from being an abused blacksmith’s son to the most powerful man in King Henry’s court. He isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and use whatever means are at his disposal to move things in his direction. I kept thinking of him as a dangerous introvert; always listening, always observing and staying under the radar until ready to make his move. At the same time, he is a loving father and husband, cares about helping the poor and mistreated, and is fiercely loyal to those he serves. Cromwell is a fascinating character to say the least.
If you are looking for a rich, dense historical drama that is also funny and unique, Wolf Hall has got the goods. I was impressed with Hilary Mantel’s writing and felt she deliberately set a tone that said, “This is a massive historical novel, but not terribly stiff or formal, so relax and enjoy!” However, I quickly learned that Wolf Hall requires time and patience to be fully appreciated. It’s not the kind of book you can rush through.
Action-packed is not how I would describe Wolf Hall. A lot happens in the story, but nothing happens with a bang or a twist, it just happens when you blink or drift off for a second in your thoughts. Without a doubt you will get confused like I did over characters and the use of pronouns, but if you’re willing to persist with the story you’ll get the hang of things. However, for these reasons, I can see Wolf Hall not being everyone’s cup of tea. Also, why is this book called Wolf Hall and not one scene takes place at the actual Wolf Hall?
Hilary Mantel’s story about Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power is not your average page-turner. Wolf Hall requires time and patience to read because its genius is more subtle, less in your face. After my initial belief that the book was not for me, I decided to give it a chance and take my time reading it. I’m glad I did because the book was truly rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Cromwell’s complexity as a character and the man pulling the strings behind much of the drama in King Henry’s court, so much I am willing to read another 650-page book to find out what he does next.