Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize (the UK's top literary award) for achievement in fiction this year. Since it is a historical novel about my favorite period of English history (the Tudors), I snapped it right up.

The story centers on Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose from very humble beginnings to become a lawyer, secretary to Cardinal Wolsey and ultimately was named Earl of Essex by King Henry VIII. Cromwell had enormous influence on the course of English history during the decade in which he was in power as the closest advisor to the King. This was the period that saw Catherine of Aragon set aside for Anne Boleyn; Anne Boleyn executed; her successor Jane Seymour die after childbirth and the disastrous match with Anne of Cleaves.

It is also the period that saw great changes in the English government and society as Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic church over his desire to divorce his first wife. Cromwell was one of the most influential figures of this period. He was sympathetic to the Reformation movement, but was always a realist.

Wolf Hall focuses on the rise of Cromwell, who fixed his star to Anne Boleyn, and ends just before her arrest and subsequent execution. Although the book has received a lot of fulsome praise by critics, I have some problems with it.

First of all, it really demands that the reader have a good background in the history of the period. Most historical fiction writers supply enough background along the way so that the reader who is not familiar with the period and people depicted can follow it. Wolf Hall does not.

Secondly, I found the writing style awkward. Too often I found it difficult to figure out who "he" was. In fact I almost gave up reading it about half way through out of frustration.

Thirdly, there were so much extraneous detail and so many minor characters that the main themes of the novel were overshadowed.

I did learn a lot about Cromwell's influence on the reformation of both the English government and the English church. He was a canny politician who used his methodical and logical mind to rise to power in a cynical and treacherous court. Ultimately, he fell from favor and lost his head--but that is a novel for another day. I read somewhere that Mantel plans a series for this character.

Writing a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell was a great idea but I think Mantel should have focused the narrative more tightly on her main character. I'll probably read her sequel, if there is one, in the hope that she does that.

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