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Wolf Hall – Book Review

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. he is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement. His hair is dark, heavy and waving, and his small eyes, which are of very strong sight, light up in conversation: so the Spanish ambassador will tell us, quite soon. It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testament in Latin, and so as a servant of the cardinal is apt – ready with a text if abbots flounder. His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. he can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything. – from Wolf Hall, page 25 –

Hilary Mantel’s sprawling, Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall is set in England during the sixteenth century. Narrated by Thomas Cromwell, it is an intimate look into the life of King Henry VIII and the cast of historical figures who surrounded him. More importantly, it is an examination of the clash between the Roman Catholic Church and the royalty – a battle of wills and politics that turned deadly for many as King Henry sought to divorce Catherine of Aragon (who could not give him a male heir) and marry Anne Boleyn.

Since Christ did not induce his followers into earthly power, how can it be maintained that the princes of today derive their power from the Pope? In fact, all priests are subjects, as Christ left them. It is for the prince to govern the bodies of his citizens, to say who is married and who can marry, who is bastard and who legitimate. – from Wolf Hall, page 435 –

This tumultuous time in history was defined by the struggle between Catholic power and Protestant will; a time when players could change sides in an instant and the charge of treason meant certain death. The Protestant Reformation, headed by Martin Luther, plays a large part in Wolf Hall and leaves one to wonder which side Cromwell was really on. It is a complex and complicated history into which Mantel drops her characters. Readers who lack adequate knowledge about English history in the 1500’s  may find themselves lost in a sea of details and characters (many who share the same first name); and find themselves struggling to get through this densely written tome.

Mantel writes her novel in the present tense – an interesting choice for historical fiction, but one which I think worked to her advantage. She also picks the perfect protagonist to drive her story. Cromwell is an interesting historical character. In Mantel’s book, he is richly imagined…a man who is is able to sidle up to the King of England and play one man against another in order to ensure his place in history, while at the same time is a loving family man who grieves so much for his wife and two young children (who die from illness), that he never re-married. The stark contrast between empathetic father and manipulative, driven lawyer helps define the internal conflict of the novel.

It’s beautiful, he says, not wanting to spoil his pleasure. But next time, he thinks, take me with you. His hand skims the surface, rich and soft. The flaw in the weave hardly matters. A turkey carpet is not an oath. There are some people in this world who like everything squared up and precise, and there are those who will allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person. He would not allow, for example, a careless ambiguity in a lease, but instinct tells him that sometimes a contract need not be drawn too tight. – from Wolf Hall, page 187 –

But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires. – from Wolf Hall, page 294 –

Another strength of Wolf Hall was Mantel’s sardonic sense of humor which comes through in pithy dialogue between the characters. Cromwell’s observations of Anne are priceless…and Mantel reveals the ridiculousness of some of the royalty, as well as the Church.

Despite this and her excellent characterization, Mantel chooses to use an ambiguous pronoun. Her use of “he” (to identify the narrator) instead of “I” consistently confused me. I often found myself going back to re-read a passage in order to understand who was now speaking or acting. Often the “he” in the sentence did not match the subject which made it all the more confusing. Mantel’s disregard for this grammatical “rule” took away from the story for me. I found myself often setting the book aside in frustration. I could not completely immerse myself in Cromwell’s complex world. I felt as though I were reading a book, rather than falling into a story.

I wanted to love this book. Passages where Mantel let her gifts as a writer shine, left me feeling that this book should have read better. I should have flown through it in record time, exclaiming at the scope of what I had read. Instead, I found myself relieved to have finally finished the book after nearly three weeks of slogging through its pages.

Many readers are raving about Wolf Hall…I suspect most of them had a good understanding of English medieval history and so could sort through the ambiguity of Mantel’s prose. Sadly, I am not one of them. Although I admire Mantel’s writing ability, I have to admit, I really did not enjoy this book. Mantel is apparently going to be publishing a sequel to Wolf Hall. I think I will skip it.

Some might like this book.

Don’t take my word for it…read other reviews:

23 Comments

  1. February 20, 2010    

    Great review! I suspect this book isn’t for me either.

  2. February 20, 2010    

    I know this isn’t “my” type of book but you’re not the only one to mention the I/he thing … I remember hearing that in some other reviews too.

  3. February 20, 2010    

    It’s so unusual for us to disagree on a book! Sorry to hear this one wasn’t to your liking!

  4. February 20, 2010    

    Wendy, don’t feel bad. I am a student of these period and have read and studied about Henry VIII for over 25 years, yet I was confused by this work. I put the book down after chapter 1. Mantel may be a great descriptive writer, but her dialog skills are lacking. I am surprised an editor did not help her with this.
    I would try her again hoping she changes her style.

  5. February 20, 2010    

    Kathy: Thanks – this was a very tough read.

    Jenners: I do think this is a pivotal point for readers…some readers were able to ignore the he/I thing, others (like me) got completely irritated by it.

    Laura: It is unusual that we were so far apart on a book – but I guess it happens once in awhile. I still like you 🙂

    Sari: Thanks for the confirmation that I’m not out in left field on this one. I have never read a book which made me feel so consistently stupid throughout. I felt like I was missing huge sections. Very frustrating. The only reason I finished it was so I could contribute to a discussion on a book group. Otherwise, I think I would have heaved it against a wall at about the point you stopped reading!

  6. carolyn carolyn
    February 20, 2010    

    Thanks for your honest review, Wendy. I’ve had to put this one down for a while, but I do intend to finish it. I keep hoping I’ll get over the “he” thing, but even beyond that, I think your description of “sprawling” is a good one. Sometimes it seems like one discrete scene connected to another with little segue.

  7. February 21, 2010    

    I need to read this one this year as part of the Man Booker Prize Challenge. I am thinking I might need to get it now and spread it out over the year.

  8. February 21, 2010    

    I, too, had a mixed reaction to this book.
    I thought it was really well-written and that Mantel did a great job with the characters, but I just didn’t really like it. It was slow and really boring in parts, but I kept chugging because it was supposed to be great.
    After I finished it (three weeks after beginning), I felt as if I didn’t remember a thing I had read!
    You aren’t alone on this one!

  9. February 21, 2010    

    I’m quite pleased to see that you finished this book, but did not enjoy it. I didn’t make it to the end, so it only got a 1 star from me. It is nice to know that I made the right choice in giving up and that I didn’t waste my time with it!

  10. February 21, 2010    

    I’ll eventually get to this one because I trying to read all the Booker winners, but I don’t think I’ll be racing to get to it.

  11. February 22, 2010    

    Carolyn: I never did get past the “he” thing like other readers have been able to do…I hope you’ll enjoy the book better than I did. It is a sprawling chunk of a book, isn’t it?

    Vivienne: Almost every reader says this is a slow read (even those who like the book). Might not be a bad idea to start it soon 🙂

    Michelle: Thank you for the affirmation! There have been times I just think I wasn’t smart enough to “get it”…but many readers whose opinion I deeply respect have been in agreement with our take on the book…which makes me feel better 🙂

    Jackie: You and I are almost always in agreement – and although I’m glad I actually finished the book, a big part of me is annoyed it ate up so much of my time.

    Rose City Reader: I hope you like it better than I did!

  12. February 22, 2010    

    You nailed my biggest issue with the novel on the head – her use of the pronoun “he.” It kept me from reading straight through this novel. I enjoyed the novel, but it could have been better if she was less clever with pronouns. What I liked most about this book was that it made me like Cromwell. Prior to picking up this novel, I would have laughed at the suggestion. Reading about this time period through a man’s eyes was also enlightening.

    I fully understand why you didn’t enjoy this book and won’t read the sequel. I’m not so sure about it myself and I liked Wolf Hall. Hmmm…

  13. February 23, 2010    

    I admit that I was one of those who loved Wolf Hall and was (after MUCH effort) finally able to get over the pronoun thing. But I am beginning to feel that this is partly because I was a huge Mantel fan before reading Wolf Hall, and so was already so impressed by her skill that I was willing to go with her on the pronoun thing though I didn’t like it.

    Not sure if you’re willing to try another huge doorstopper, but I highly, highly recommend A Place of Greater Safety by Mantel. I fell in love with her with that book 🙂 If not, I also really enjoyed Fludd, and that is quite short. Don’t give up on her!

  14. February 24, 2010    

    Literate Housewife: *nods* I just hate to be yanked back into reality, which was what the “he” did for me…it broke up the flow of the novel and reminded me I was reading and not just experiencing.

    Aarti: I will give Mantel another go – but not with the sequel of Wolf Hall since I think she will most likely remain in the same style of writing. I’ll have to check out the two you mentioned. I don’t usually give up on a well-known author after one so-so book – and truthfully, I did see Mantel’s brilliance as a writer, I just didn’t like this particular book.

  15. March 10, 2010    

    Enjoyed your review, and completely agree with your conclusions. The use of “he” was distracting, but there were places where the book really shone. Don’t know that I’ll be anxious to pick up the sequel. For me, Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII: with Notes by His Fool, Will Somers is the definitive fictional history of this strangely captivating, frustrating man.

  16. March 12, 2010    

    Jeanie: I know a lot of readers who did not seem bothered by the “he” but I found it immensely annoying! Given that we seem to be on the same page re: book likes/dislikes, I really appreciate your recommendation by Margaret George. I’ll have to check it out. THANKS!

  17. September 1, 2011    

    Wolf Hall is one of the most astounding, magnificent books I have ever read and I have read many great books. I know the use of the pronoun ‘he’ is confusing but all it takes is a bit of effort. The prose is spectacular. I loved it and I was in love with Thomas Cromwell almost immediately. I have been raving about this book since I read it in the middle of preparing for my finals at University. I just dropped everything else and devoured it. This is what happens with this book and the strange thing is that I gave it to some of my ‘bookish’ friends who couldn’t ‘get into it’. Don’t ask.
    I think this book should be required reading on every beach, in every home, on every school curriculum and everywhere books are read. I am now reading it again and waiting for the sequel. Read it, Please.

  18. September 1, 2011    

    Dolly: I always love to see readers get excited about the books they love – so I am glad you stopped by to share your thoughts even though I did not enjoy this book. I DID read it 🙂 And although we don’t share the same opinions about it, I think the world is that much more interesting for those differences.

  19. tower green tower green
    November 7, 2011    

    I am amazed at how irritated everyone became with the “he”. Do you honestly believe a copy editor or Mantel did not understand this use? It was generally obvious to me that the “he” was Cromwell. There is no “I” for Cromwell, and to use Cromwell’s name creates a “narrator” and there is no narrator. This device provided a fresh angle to a story that has been told how many times now? It worked for me.

    As for the book itself. I was enthralled. Nothing I have read in either fiction or non-fiction, be it Alison Weir or Sharon Kay Penman, comes close to the achievement. One of the best books I have read in twenty years.

  20. November 7, 2011    

    Tower: You are, of course, entitled to your opinion…and many readers agree with you, although some also saw it from my point of view. I found the use of the ambiguous pronoun very distracting. Mandell uses the pronoun “he” not just for Cromwell, but for just about every male character in the book. Naturally this was read by a copy editor…that doesn’t mean it works for everyone. I’m glad the book was one of the best you’ve read in twenty years. It actually was one of the least enthralling books I’ve read in twenty years. And that is what makes the world interesting – we all have different opinions. Thanks for weighing in.

  21. TheFroggyhop TheFroggyhop
    February 21, 2012    

    I gave up on this book because I fell ill but I still had to try to finish a school project. I totally agree with you on the he/I thing and I think it would be so much better if she just read through it herself. I plodded through some of it wishing I was doing something else and getting distracted very easily. Usually I am invisible to the world when I pick up a book but this one just didn’t do it for me. I’m not criticizing all of you who loved it, just that is my opinion.

  22. February 25, 2012    

    Froggyhop: I agree with you – this one was a chore for me. She is writing a follow up to this one, but I think I’ll be skipping it.

  23. AMB AMB
    December 6, 2012    

    I think Mantel’s books are a good example of how people’s literary tastes differ: No book is going to please everyone! I started “Wolf Hall” and just couldn’t make my way through it (it’s just not for me). My husband managed to finish it, but only because he’s less willing to give up on a book than I am. Obviously, though, we seem to be in the minority on this one.

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