I came across this book the day after a good friend had given it a glowing review and expressed shocked surprise that I hadn’t yet read it – so of course I couldn’t let it languish on the shelf, could I?
Now, this is where I normally type up the blurb. But I’m not going to – because there isn’t any. Nope. Other than a few lines of advertising fluff on the back cover along the lines of: This wonderful Man Booker prizewinning book about Thomas Cromwell is really, really worth reading… I suppose when a book gets the amount of exposure that Wolf Hall has received, then extra explanation is unnecessary.
Suffice to say, that it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, widely regarded as one of history’s bad men. What is undeniable is that this is a remarkable book. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar – we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance. The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well – so how to pull us into the story and keep us turning the pages of this door-stopper? Well, the use of present tense throughout gives this book pace and immediacy. While she certainly charts the major events in Henry’s constant struggles to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine in favour of Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell’s musings and highly personal take on what is going on around him that bounces off the page.
I haven’t read Mantel before – so was sort of expecting a conscientious, if skilful, reiteration of the steadily growing sense of urgency and danger that gained momentum as Henry’s desperation at being thwarted grew. But she does nothing of the sort. Mantel plays with those expectations – and then confounds them. Her portrait of Cromwell as a complicated, brilliant and restless man with huge amounts of physical and mental energy is wonderful and builds gradually in slices of showing, not telling. By the end, I knew all sorts of snippets about him – including his love and knowledge of good food; his enjoyment of comfort and the good things in life; his love of small dogs; his concern for poor people in the district; his distaste for torture and burning; his pragmatic view of religion. But she doesn’t omit the sense of menace he exudes and the fact that he enjoys bullying men – particularly those who are high-born.
We are also treated to passages of poetic beauty as he muses on the meaning of life and death. And his grief when in a single year he loses his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness – a blow from which he never truly recovers. Mantel’s grip on her narrative timeline is so confident she regularly allows Cromwell’s internal musings to range across tracts of his life we know little of – without giving the reader much explanation of the context. It is only as we are treated to a series of these reflections, we can start to build a fuller picture of how Cromwell comes to be as he is – and why he so dislikes Thomas Moore, for instance.
So… having read to the end – and knowing that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, must inevitably chart Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour, am I up for plunging into the next brick-sized book in this duology? Oh, absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Furthermore, if you have also somehow managed to miss the froth and excitement that these books have generated – get hold of Wolf Hall and give it a go. There is a solid reason why it is the most read of all Man Booker prizewinning books.