Wolf Hall was recently named the winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize for fiction, and all of a sudden there were all these glowing reviews about a book I’d never heard of. Having finished it the other night, I can say they were spot-on!
Mantel re-imagines the court of Henry VIII, through the eyes and voice of Thomas Cromwell. Those of you who watch The Tudors are probably up on who Cromwell is. Many of you might have some sort of inkling of the statesman who made it possible for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn and helped dissolve the Catholic monasteries. (If you thought he was someone who caused a wee bit o’ trouble in Ireland, you’ve got the wrong Cromwell.) Cromwell is widely remembered for his calculating mind and ruthless ambition, but Mantel portrays him in full and he benefits from it. For sure, he’s all about the numbers, and knowing who owns what, and how that can help the king (and himself). Here, we also see a man who is scarred by a miserable childhood, who loves his wife and children, who is fond of good food and culture, and who is loyal to those he serves.
One of the best things about this book is the feeling of ‘knowing’ that you get while reading it. Many events that are described have weight and a sense of direction–the moment Henry is told that the baby is not a boy, or when Cromwell first meets the young Jane Seymour–and they inexorably lead towards that day in Cromwell’s future that we already know about. Wolf Hall ends well before that moment, and I think it’s a testament to Mantel’s powerful writing that I was happy to not see the end of Thomas Cromwell.