Book Review: Wolf Hall By Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall is a truly incredible book. It tells a familiar story: that of King Henry 8th trying to secure an annulment from his first wife, Katherine. But it tells the story from a whole new perspective: the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. 

You could write thousands of words on the Cromwell Mantel has created. He is alive, he jumps out of the page and lodges himself in your mind as you read. He is almost a genius, the ultimate political fixer. He’s enlightened for his period, but pragmatic, mysterious. 

His brutal childhood is visceral, his painful losses are gut wrenching and his rapid rise to power is enthralling. He’s by no means a hero, but you can’t help but cry at his pain, root for his rise to power, and cheer when his enemies are knocked down before him. 

This book is powerful written, surprisingly funny and immensely detailed, but its biggest achievement is that it all feels so real. Long dead people are reborn, given new live and agency. By focussing on conversations, snapshots of his, Cromwell’s life, Mantel allows us to forget the events we’re reading about happened hundreds of years ago. The book is as close to time travel as possible to be. 

I was constantly reading and rereading passages to decipher the coded meanings and foreshadowing, both in character dialogue and Mantel’s lyrical prose. 

Dialogue takes precedence over description, which also allows the reader to forget the time period and get lost in the politics of the Tudor court. And the future is so uncertain. Despite the fact we all know how this story ends, the characters do not, and their planning, plotting, scheming against the destiny we all know is inevitable drives the story forward. 

The book is in two parts. First, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, in which we also learn about the history of England, a nation on the precipice of the magical, murderous superstitious past, and the modern, cold future and no less murderous future. Second, the rise of Cromwell, in which he rises to become the second power in England. The scope is epic, but despite it’s 500+ page length the  plot flashes by, so much so that I flicked back to earlier chapters multiple times just to recap.

This book is truly remarkable. It’s been called a classic of modern English writing and I very much agree, it’s possibly the greatest book I’ve ever read bar one: Bring Up The Bodies. 

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