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Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

This novel takes the all-too-familiar career of Thomas Cromwell and turns it inside out, revealing an unexpectedly thoughtful and empathetic character. What’s that, you’re not familiar at all with the career of Thomas Cromwell? Well, neither was I, and I suspect that that made my reading of it much different from the intended one, as I ended up reading it purely as a historical novel and not as some great reimagining. But it was a really good historical novel.

Thomas Cromwell was born a commoner and rose to become one of the must trusted advisors to Henry VIII (the one with the six wives — we just get the first two of them here). He seems to be regarded by history mostly as a villain, largely based on his standing as the chief nemesis of Thomas More, who opposed the king’s declaring himself the head of the church. Mantel turns Cromwell into a real person, who is not perfect but is generally always trying to do the right thing.

Her writing style here is intriguing; it’s very restrained, avoiding much emotion or florid description, and you get the feeling that it is meant to reflect Cromwell’s own character. Cromwell himself, although present in every scene (as far as I can remember), is hardly ever mentioned explicitly by name, but is just called “he” unless it is really necessary to distinguish him from another man in the scene. There is pretty much no “As you know, Bob” exposition; the characters talk to each other as if they already know the subject they’re discussing, which can make it a little hard for the reader to catch up, but is rewarding once you do, making it feel a bit like you’re in on a secret.

The plot moves fairly slowly, and I think I might have been happier with it at 400 pages instead of 550, but it remained very interesting all the way through. I imagine that part of the slowness for me was that Mantel wanted to visit and reinterpret a number of important historical incidents, none of which meant much to me.

So I feel like I didn’t get everything out of it that the author put in; it’s sort of like hearing a cover of a song without knowing the original and thus not being able to hear what original aspects of the song the new performer kept or discarded or reworked. If you are already familiar with 16th century English history this book is probably revelatory (and in fact it has won all sorts of prizes); if you’re not, it’s still an excellent read.