Fate, omen and the rose’s thorn: Wolf Hall, a Review

I’m starting off my book blogging career with a review of Wolf Hall: another in a series of giant tomes of books that I’ve really enjoyed. This is a book that’s always been on the shelf in our house, a tiny, constant fixture in my life: I remember sitting at my mom’s computer playing games at an age of no more than ten (actually, the book came out in 2009 so I must have been closer to sixteen), looking up and seeing the book’s title, wondering vaguely what it was about. My mother had read it when it first came out, so it ended up in the growing stack above the desk and soon became a part of the scenery. It wasn’t until the tv show was announced a year or so ago that my mom reread it, and it wasn’t until it was mentioned in my historical linguistics class this year (about English usage and social mobility in 16th century England) that I finally decided to pick it up. With the title- and no more information than that- having been fixtures in my life for so long, finally reading it felt like fulfilling a prophecy.

I’m finding more and more these days that reading giant books- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (my all time favorite), Les Miserables (which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed but haven’t managed to finish yet after about three years), Ulysses (which will get reviewed quite soon here now that Bloomsday has come and gone), not to mention the later HP and GoT books- is worth it, if they’re written well. Wolf Hall is written well. It seems like quite a commitment when one picks it up but the sheer level of detail, both in rendering the world of Henry VIII’s England and in developing the characters themselves, makes it worth the read. The worldbuilding- for that’s what it really is: the era is one relatively well-known to readers of historical fiction, but Mantel’s depth of detail gives a deep, rich texture that grounds events and characters in a realism that inextricably ties them together, and renders them lifelike.

The prose is eminently readable for a story with such potential for dryness, but more than that it is beautiful: flowing and poetic. I find that the best historical fictions tend to feature a level of occultism appropriate to the age they’re set in, and Mantel weaves a thread of omen and eerie fantasy through this story that makes the unfolding events fall into place with an unnerving fatedness; births and deaths and overthrowings feel like magic in Mantel’s hands.

The characters, too- especially Cromwell but even members of the court, Cromwell’s semifictional employees and his ill-starred family members, all take on a depth of motivation and desire and grief and pleasure that makes the reader (well, me at least) care deeply about them, and is why I don’t feel that Mantel wrote the women badly or shallowly as has been claimed by some critics, though this is my malleable opinion only.

Mantel is also a master of character death: I rarely cry anymore at the death of a character but I cried at the deaths of Cromwell’s wife and children, and I really felt the characters’ grief and the terror of the brutal indifference of the sleeping sickness.

Cromwell himself is a flawed, likeable and frightening character who changes and neither for better or worse, throughout the story and is set to change some more in the second book (which I still need to secure a copy of).

Overall I found this to be an engaging story with finely crafted prose, often sad but oftener funny. I’d highly recommend it to any fan of historical fiction but also to readers of literary fiction, because it is above all about the characters, in my opinion, the historical detail serving only to give them depth and motivation.

I’m no historian, and so I would be very interested to hear from some actual historians talk about the accuracy of the book and how well Mantel’s rendition of Cromwell’s character lines up with historical sources. I’m sure that a deeper understanding of the history of the time would enrich my understanding of the plot and characters, so feel free to reblog with commentary!

[note: this is a slightly old post that has been transferred from my original book blog, apiomancy.tumblr.com, which I will delete soon]

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