Wolf Hall (Apr. 2014)

wolf hall

You’ll love this book if you enjoyed: Kleopatra, Pharaoh, The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, Birds Without Wings

I cannot rave enough about Wolf Hall. It is the most perfectly, elegantly, and beautifully crafted story I have read in a very long time.

It’s a monster of a book, running at about 650 pages, but it is a very quick and thoroughly enjoyable read. I got through it in under a week, and I had to force myself to put it down during that time in order to deal with, you know, life. If I could have, I would have read it straight through.

As anyone who’s read the synopsis will know, Wolf Hall deals with the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. There is backstory – about Cromwell’s childhood, escape to Europe, education under Cardinal Wolsey, but the bulk of the story takes place around and in relation to the scandals coming out of the king’s court, namely concerning the dissolving of his marriage to Katherine, his separation from Rome, and his union with Anne Boleyn. We are with Cromwell as he rises among the king’s councillors until he’s pretty much Henry’s right-hand man.

The plot is closely-focused on this scandal in the court, but Mantel draws the reader back in time, waxing on the history of how England came to that point. She draws on mythology, religion, folklore, astrology, and all sorts of other disciplines to corroborate her points, weaving a fascinating web for the reader to tease meaning and inferences from.

As you can imagine, the story is a saga with a cast of thousands. The list of characters at the front of the book spans 5 pages, which seems daunting, but Mantel is such a deft hand at characterization that you soon become intimately familiar with all the characters and no longer have trouble telling the Thomases apart (there are a lot of Thomases.)

That brings me to Mantel’s style. I am envious of this woman’s style. The prose in this book is so sure, the narrator so confident, that the reader is swept along on a comfortable wave of narrative authority. It is an odd style, with indirect dialogue infused with direct dialogue, all of which is -at times – sprinkled with Cromwell’s thoughts and reflections. If you submit to the style rather than fight against it with your notion of how you think it should have been written, then there shouldn’t be an issue. Although I would say Mantel demands a fairly sophisticated reader to adapt and follow along with the story.

Considering this is an historical fiction, intuition (or at least my intuition) would have the narrative be in past tense, but Wolf Hall is entirely in present tense. It’s told in third-person, but very close in on Thomas Cromwell. I don’t believe we are ever privy to the thoughts and sentiments of other characters outside of the filter of Cromwell’s thoughts. There are meditative passages where the narrator seems to slip into second for a moment, but you imagine the ‘you’ as being other people in the story or perhaps a diary Cromwell is writing rather than the reader himself. It is a rather bizarre device, and I’m amazed she could sustain it as well as she did for such a lengthy tale.

She has beautiful, descriptive prose, coming up with images that feel unique and fresh: “Her finger reaches out, tentative, to push the petals below the water, so each of them becomes a vessel shipping water, a cup, a perfumed grail.”

But the real treasure in this book has to be the dialogue. It sparks and crackles and leaps off the page. It is insightful, painfully honest, laugh-out-loud funny, and downright witty. There is not a wasted bit of dialogue to be found and I found myself reading scenes over again just to enjoy the conversations. Anyone who comes up with the phrase: “By the thrice-beshitten shroud of Lazarus!” is A-ok in my book.

Without spoiling the story (which isn’t really possible since it’s historical) the book ends on a perfect note. It satisfies your experience of Wolf Hall and amps you up for Bring Up The Bodies, which I am immediately turning to.

I will go on a limb and say, your life is a poorer one if you haven’t read this book. Read it. Read it now!