Wolf Hall by: Hilary Mantel – #1 in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy
AGE GROUP: 15+// GENRE: Historical fiction// NUMBER OF PAGES: 604// RATING: 4.5/5
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
*The summary, as always, is from Goodreads.*
Hi! Welcome back to another review. Although I do not discuss the Black Lives Matter movement during this post, I have written a post exclusively concerning the movement. If you wish to discover ways in which you can support BLM, my post includes a list of helpful resources (which I continue to contribute to with additional resources upon discovery).
This review is fairly scattered, as most of my thoughts are described in the “writing” and “characters” categories. My apologies!
I am genuinely flabbergasted that I enjoyed Wolf Hall to the extent to which I did!
Wolf Hall is a vastly modernized reimagining of Henry VIII’s reign in the 16th century. The story was surprisingly refreshing and very much educational (frustratingly so, at times). I began this novel with little knowledge of the 16th century and the prominent events that accompany it. Therefore, I was quite prepared to begin the book and swiftly abandon it. To my utmost delight, however, that was not the case. In fact, the story became rapidly absorbing and rather entertaining.
As expected, I found the political element especially challenging to understand. Complicated as it is, this is also due to Hilary Mantel’s refusal to describe the current events in an elementary and undemanding manner. While her resistance can become extremely exasperating, this reading experience has undoubtably allowed me to evolve as a reader, for which I am grateful. I do appreciate the fact that she demands effort from a reader. I, myself, demand more from an author than a merely pleasurable reading experience, and Hilary Mantel has certainly delivered in that regard.
That said, I did find my mind drifting near the end of the novel, for the conclusion felt especially prolonged, by no fault of Hilary Mantel. Although the novel felt slightly bloated, we can hold history accountable for the fact that an execution date took a seeming eternity to secure.
Hilary Mantel undoubtably succeeded in transforming somewhat alien historical figures into in-depth and complex characters. The characters possess a certain humanity and tangibility that is not commonly recognized at present due to their antiquity. Throughout the story, I grew greatly fascinated by several characters, in particular Thomas Cromwell (in part owing to his distinct similarities to Severus Snape). Mantel skilfully crafted Cromwell as an incredibly compelling and soft-spoken, yet inevitably assertive and somewhat manipulative, leading character.
However, while I was certainly fond of numerous characters, there are several challenges that naturally accompany an extensive cast of historical figures. Firstly, it was unbelievably difficult to follow the names of each character, in part as a result of how few names were widely used throughout the 16th century. Frequently, I found myself frantically referring back to the cast of characters featured at the beginning of the novel. I do believe having a rather vague understanding of each character and their position impacted my read, for the narrative became less immersive at times.
Secondly, I found it particularly challenging to understand the terminology present, specifically surrounding the characters’ titles. Although I was able to gradually associate each character with a certain title, a fresh challenge arose each time a character was presented with a new title. As the story progressed, however, I worried less about understanding the significance of the individual positions, which certainly contributed to a more satisfying reading experience.
Finally, not only does Mantel habitually address each character by numerous corresponding names, she refrains from referring to Thomas Cromwell by his entire name; rather, she is certain to refer to him as “he” or “he, Cromwell.” I have read various reviews in which readers express considerable frustration concerning Mantel’s aforementioned stylistic choice. While I do understand that frustration—and certainly experienced it at times—I was more so bothered by the list of different names/titles that correlated with each character. Nevertheless, I have gradually adjusted to Mantel’s tendencies. As the story advanced, I grew to appreciate the characters’ natures and their behaviours far more than their mere labels (which are in fact significant among members of the aristocracy, but I continue to disregard them).
Hilary Mantel’s writing style is a creature of its own.
While the political element present in Wolf Hall is immensely challenging to follow alone, Mantel’s writing style conveniently exacerbates matters. I do admire the way in which she demands the utmost patience as well as confidence from a reader. She is not one to carefully ensure your comprehension of every particular throughout the novel. Although Mantel is indeed exceptionally gifted at precision with respect to detail, she is also exceptionally gifted at infuriating ambiguity with respect to dialogue. I say this, however, with little malice: merely wonder. Although it certainly grew maddening at times, I do appreciate how greatly stimulating her writing is.
That said, I did have severe difficulty visualizing each scene. Although Wolf Hall is admirably detailed, I believe this difficulty is primarily owing to the fact that I was (and remain, to a certain extent) exceptionally unfamiliar with the time period and was, consequently, entirely incapable of summoning an image to mind. This might be additionally owing to the fact that I was concentrating heavily on the storyline in an effort to understand the current circumstances and events.
Furthermore, due to the extent to which Hilary Mantel has modernized the story (insofar as her writing), I was unable to wholly appreciate its antiquity. Particularly at the beginning of the story, I felt as if there were not nearly as many glaring indicators of the story’s time period so as to differentiate it from the present day. My unfamiliarity with the 16th century, however, contributed immensely to my inability to thoroughly understand the era and distinguish it from the current era. That said, I am indeed incredibly thankful for Mantel’s modernized reinterpretation of Henry VIII’s rule, for her writing—and therefore, her novels—is fairly accessible for an abundance of readers (notwithstanding the intricate political element).
Finally, I did want to remark on the fact that throughout Wolf Hall I found it rather challenging to differentiate between memory and present day. Needless to say, this is due to Mantel’s particular and ambitious writing style. While this ambiguity provoked confusion at the time, I believe I have become a more attentive and thoughtful reader as a result of Mantel’s narration.
I consider it an exceptional achievement, on the part of Hilary Mantel, to have thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Hall. Despite the considerable challenge, I am sincerely pleased to have read this novel. I have grown quite fond of Thomas Cromwell (and his son, Gregory, who is an absolute pleasure to read about, however briefly he appears) as well as the story. Although Hilary Mantel’s writing style is occasionally a pest, her writing is delightfully absorbing (if you allow it time). I am now once more immersed in the 16th century by means of the second installment, Bring Up the Bodies!
As always, thank you for reading.