Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII. This is a period in England’s history frequently explored by writers of fiction and non-fiction and Mantel’s triumph is to bring a unique voice in to such a crowd. It is an extraordinary presentation of an extraordinary man.

Everything that is thought, said and done is filtered through Cromwell, hence the repeated (and occasionally confusing) use of “he” referring almost exclusively to the leading character. The narration is simultaneously removed from its subject and yet living in his head. It reads like a journal written in the present tense and third person, a sports commentary on his mind. Both he and the reader are outsiders. It is a striking technique, drawing you in and holding your attention for the 650 or so pages.

Cromwell lived at a time of remarkable religious and social transformation and Mantel deals with this more skilfully than, for example, C.J. Sansom, whose desire to link past and present has become increasingly obvious. Wolf Hall seems less agenda-driven and is the better for it. He is an arch pragmatist living at a time of great faith and credulity, as he bows to Machiavelli so the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell would nod to him now. In Wolf Hall he possesses the former’s endurance and the latter’s style. He is thus the antithesis of Sir Thomas More and their battle frames the book. In its sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, Wolf Hall could perhaps be considered his defence against A man for all seasons. Men and women of faith are everywhere, calling into question the nature of belief provocatively but subtly; there are no lectures one way or the other here.

Tudor intrigue abounds, as of course it must. The cast is so large and their relationships so complicated and essential that a list of most of them is helpfully included at the start to help you remember who and what is going on. Only Cromwell can remember it all. Reading became relentless because of the characters rather than plot development or themes. It probably deserves a second, slower, treatment. I will get its sequel the moment it is published in order to travel further with this remarkable man. I know enough history to be aware of what is going to happen but that doesn’t lessen the thrill of reading it.