OK – so I’m the last book blogger in the world to have read this – winner of everything going (apart from last year’s controversial Orange, when it was robbed). There is a reason for the delay. I decided I wanted to listen to the unabridged audio. My library has a copy and when I joined the queue, just after it won the Booker (October 2009), I was third in it. 15 months later, when my book group decided to read the book, I was still third in the queue. The one unabridged audio version has obviously gone walkies.
So all that waiting to read a book that was such an obvious match for me. Historical fiction, told well, I was going to love it. And I did – all 650 pages of it – it took just under a week (and one when I was working full-time) – and I could happily have read 650 pages more. Hooked into and transported back 5 centuries from that very first sentence into a violent, cruel and frankly, terrifying time. Nay, not into a world but into Cromwell’s head by means of an incredibly controlled third person narrative where he and his viewpoint are absolutely paramount. Our eyes see through his, we know the facts only if he does and revisionist as it may be, there’s sense in Thomas More’s fanaticism (though today we would call it hypocrisy) and Mistress Boleyn’s games (was she or was she not a Tudor Wallis Simpson?)
What can be said about this novel that hasn’t already been said? Nothing – it is simply superb. It transcends historical genre fiction in a way that Jean Plaidy never did. (Ah yes, Jean Plaidy, a favourite author in my adolescence. I learned a lot of what I know about Tudor Britain from her. 40 years ago, I remember she taught me the word “excruciating” – she was talking about the pain of being hung, drawn and quartered.) While I was busy learning vocabulary from Plaidy, I was busy feeling the pain of Mantel’s disembowelled monks. Wolf Hall makes you pay attention to the way it is told. It is the point-of-view, the experience of being inside Cromwell’s head that makes it, as James Naughtie said when awarding it the Booker Prize, a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the 16th century. And don’t forget the gory bits, the horror that enthralls and even when you would like to, you cannot look away.
Did Henry’s court have the same kind of hypnotic effect on his nobles and on the commoner Cromwell? Why did people put themselves in harm’s way by ingratiating themselves with the king? Proving that human nature spans the centuries, the motivations of today, prevailed then: ambition, greed, the thrill of beating the odds, denial in the form of it’ll never happen to me syndrome. But Henry’s court is Wolf Hall, a ravenous beast, and it devours many at the king’s whim in this first volume. And knowing what we know now, the clouds are gathering ominously for poor Anne ( portrayed as a harridan, but I find myself oddly sympathetic – perhaps I’m too conditioned by the sympathetic Anne of a Thousand Days). Meanwhile Cromwell is at the height of his career and influence but having nailed himself to Anne’s mast, he’s going to have to be a master tactician to emerge unscathed from what’s coming next ….
Mantel has talked about how much she enjoyed writing Wolf Hall and the story of Cromwell’s ascendancy. I just hope that the story of his demise proves not to be too traumatic for her – because like many others, I just want it to be rolling off the presses now!
We mark our reads out of 10 at the book group. Surprisingly perhaps Wolf Hall did not garner 10’s all around. For some it was too gory, for others, no matter how well history is packaged, it is still history. Oh yes, and up here in Motherwell, it is English history. Anathema to some! However, one member tried to give it 20 out of 10. I stand alongside her and if I could give Wolf Hall 10 stars out of 5, I would. Instead I’ll settle for 5 red stars – I confidently predict this will be my book of 2011 – and that if there’s a future Best of the Bookers, Midnight’s Children now has a rival for its crown.
Excellent review. 🙂 My book of the year too, as it happens. A wonderful novel.
I just wanted to write that I loved this book and then I read the first word of your post, LOL! I also wanted to have more of it, this book is wonderful. Is she going to write a sequel?
The comparison between Ann Boleyn and Wallis Simpson is interesting. I wonder if somebody has ever written something about that!
I love hearing that other people love this book. I’m always shocked when I meet people who don’t like it – it leaves me speechless. I read it at a very difficult time for me, when I had temporarily moved to live with my grandfather while my grandmother recovered from a series of strokes. It was such a relief to sit down with it and know that, out there, was a writer who could write Wolf Hall. A slice of genius to be bought for less that £10. 🙂
Btw, I have the unabridged audio – I bought it from Audible.co.uk after I’d read the book on paper and wanted to re-read it immediately as I walked to work. But I didn’t get on with the narrator at all. The voice was too droll and didn’t sound like ‘my’ Cromwell, so at the three hour mark I had to give up on it. It was threatening to put me off it! So maybe the person who didn’t return it to the library did you a service?
Wow, wow, wow, that is praise indeed! Nope, you are not the last book blogger to read this *hello!* so fear not. You have just made me think that I really should though…
Not the last, Lizzy, I bought it as soon as it came out and still haven’t read it, wanting to wait for the right moment because I don’t want to be disappointed, and it sounds from your review that I won’t be.
I haven’t read it wither although I have tried to start it three times. For some reason its not resonating with me.
This book is deserving of all the praise lavished on it. I have read it twice and the book seemed as fresh as ever on the second reading with the detail impressing me again. The story left me with a clear picture of Cromwell as he was so graciously crafted by Hilary Mantel. You cannot help admire her skill; the words drop off her pen spilling onto the page but never in a careless manner. You come away with the feeling that every word has been carefully thought out and yet the story has real pace and narrative drive. In a book of this length, you would expect some unnecessary paragraphs but not with this author. Every sentence had its place and contributed to the story in conveying a full sense of the era. Surprisingly, within the Book Club group (the second reading), I was the only adoree; the others could take the story or leave it and several didn’t finish it. For me, I cannot wait for the next serving from this series.
I highly recommend Mantel’s book on the French Revolution, ‘A place of greater safety’ written 15 years earlier, which is of a similar length and comparable style. When an author can make you feel that the the unfolding events are real, you are in the hands of a master. I loved this book and came to enjoy the company of the unlikely group at the centre of this rough period in French history.
Very good info. Lucky me I recently found your site by chance (stumbleupon).
I’ve book-marked it for later!