Sep. 9th, 2013

decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells a long, many-threaded story: Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his re-marriage to Anne Boleyn, the beginnings of the English Reformation, the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise and rise and rise of Wolsey's servant Thomas Cromwell. All of these plots are important, but it is Cromwell who is at the center of the book--appropriate, perhaps, since it seems he was also at the center of virtually every political development and intrigue in England in the 1530s. Mantel follows Cromwell from his low beginnings--the book opens with a scene of fourteen-year-old Cromwell being beaten nearly to death by his brutal drunkard of a father--to the lofty heights of King Henry's council chamber, showing us every twist in his fortunes along the way.

About that opening scene: it's effective. It would take a cold-hearted reader not to feel sympathetic toward a main character when we first meet that character battered and bruised and struggling to crawl out of the way of his father's boot. It worked on me, anyway--I loved Mantel's version of Cromwell, I wanted to hang out with him, I rooted for him even when he was at his most manipulative and morally ambiguous. And why not? He is an amazing character: eminently capable, intelligent, ambitious as the day is long, full of contradictions, possessed of a fine sly sense of humor which spreads outward from him to fill the narrative. In Mantel's telling, it almost seems as though Cromwell amasses power simply by always being the most imperturbable person in the room. Yet there is something unknowable about him too, a mystery that shrouds his innermost thoughts and motivations. We get hints, but we can never be quite sure--it's always possible that each of his machinations is just part of larger machination happening on a level too deep for us to see...

This review got really long. )

I didn't want to give in to the hype surrounding Wolf Hall. But in the end I had to admit that it was great. I've was talking with a writer friend recently about the extent to which a writer's job is to give the reader pleasure, and Wolf Hall gave pleasure in abundance. I couldn't get enough of it. So much so that as soon as I finished it, I picked up the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. So far Bring Up the Bodies does not quite live up to Wolf Hall, but I have great hopes that it will improve.
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