This is a wonderful book, the best kind of historical fiction. It tells you a compelling story, makes you feel like you are more-or-less living in their time (intellectually), brings you along to sympathize even identify with the characters in their strange (to us) historical era. The narration is outstanding too. Kudos to the narrator.
My only complaint, a minor one to be sure, is keeping up with the characters, who they are and who they were historically. The book itself (like those old dusty 19th century historical fiction works by Tolstoy and others) has a character list at its front. I took a look at it at the bookstore, then I read some bios on wikipedia to get myself grounded. It helped that I already knew a good deal of 1500s English history, particularly about Henry VIII. So I am going to say with alittle aid like I describe above, readers should not be intimidated by a story that takes place in historical England 500 years ago.
Incidentally, this book won the Booker Prize, and well deserved it. I have already ordered (in book form) a 1990s historical novel by Hilary Mantel.
I read all the reviews saying this book was hard to follow, but since I know something about the history of that period, and since I love good historical fiction (I thoroughly enjoyed Innocent Traitor recently, for example) I thought I would become engrossed in a long and exciting account from Thomas Cromwell's perspective. But it in fact is almost impossible to stay with. It finally dawned on me in Part 2 that when the author used "he" and "him" she was usually referring to Cromwell. I gave up trying to rewind. I wish I could like this book; it's very well written. As others have said, maybe reading it rather than listening to it would have been a better idea.
OK--I was about to stop after listening to it for over half of the narrative, and, looking at the existing reviews, decided to plunge back in to see if I could finish. With that said, it does have some very good moments and it is indeed fascinating, but some of the long passages of dialogue become much like being forced to overhear long and boring conversations . . . I kept losing the thread and wishing there was more detail and more variation of the pace and the structure. But, I'm going 'back in.' I'll add to this review when I finish it to say if the entire experience seemed worth it, overall . . . But, not for the faint of heart!
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2009) is a brilliant historical novel, an absorbing account of the first eight or so years of Thomas Cromwell's career during the 1520s and early 1530s, first as the lawyer man of business for Bishop Wolsey and then as an increasingly indispensable and close advisor to King Henry VIII. It is a time of seismic change for England, with Henry trying to annul his twenty-year marriage to Catherine of Aragorn so he can marry a younger Anne Boleyn to get the male heir Catherine hasn't produced, which involves bribing, cajoling, and threatening the Pope to get his sanction and then when that proves difficult, thinking about making Henry the head of a Church of England. Despite the fact that most people know generally what happened with Henry, his wives, and the church, etc., Mantel's story-telling skills, extensive research, keen eye for detail, and deep empathy for her very human characters make the history/story fresh and compelling.
From the very first chapter, in which boy Cromwell is savagely beaten and kicked by his alcoholic blacksmith father Walter ("By the blood of creeping Christ, stand on your feet!"), Mantel makes us care for the man who is usually the chief Machiavellian villain of 16th-century British history. Mantel works into her main narrative pieces of Cromwell's colorful past (running away as a young teen to become a mercenary fighting for France, living by his wits in Italy, becoming an international merchant and lawyer, and finally returning after twelve years to England due to a dice roll). In addition to looking "like a man who knows how to cut up a carcass" and possessing a body solid as a sea wall and a stare "the equivalent of a kick," Mantel's Cromwell has a retentive memory, facility with languages, practical business sense, unaffected manner, fine organizational and managerial skills, loyalty to his friends and masters, sympathy for children, women, and the poor, and knack for being in the right place at the right time with the right solution. He is also curious about everything from mundane matters like the making of French wafers to arcane ones like the making of a memory machine. As the Duke of Norfolk says, "Damn it all, Cromwell, why do you have to be such . . . a person?"
Mantel also depicts a new and complex Thomas More, here no Man for all Seasons idealistic and integrity-filled martyr for conscience! This More embeds spies into people's households and tortures and burns “heretics” (whereas Cromwell is sympathetic with free-thinking people), and is a hair-shirt wearing, pleasure avoiding, misogynistic domestic tyrant (whereas Cromwell loves good food and well-made things and his wife and daughters).
Mantel writes a potent, graceful, and pleasurable prose. Here are some of my favorite examples.
The sea: "He will remember his first sight of the open sea, a gray wrinkled vastness, like the residue of a dream."
The Duke of Norfolk: "Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is as lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head. His joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs' bones."
A numinous world: “The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green.”
Laws: “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world and like spells they only work if people believe in them.”
Silence: "A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts."
Sympathy: "Comfort is often, he finds, imparted at the cost of a flea or two."
British History: "It all begins in slaughter."
I suspect that Mantel could make anything work in anything she writes. For instance, apart from Cromwell's flashbacks, she writes her epic history in the present tense. And her narrator always refers to Cromwell as "he," never as Thomas or Cromwell. It can be tricky to follow things when she refers to a male character by name or title in one sentence and then to Cromwell as "he" in the next, but after you learn "his" personality and point of view, it's not difficult to grasp the referent of most of Mantel's "hes."
Why Wolf Hall? Although Cromwell seems to care for Jane Seymour, whose family lives in Wolf Hall, Jane does not play a big role in the novel, and only on the last page is he planning to stay there for a few days. Perhaps Wolf Hall represents something of Cromwell's own will, private pleasure, and romantic heart, all of which must usually be restrained as he goes about the Cardinal and especially the King's business?
The audiobook reader, Simon Slater, does an excellent job with the different voices of the large cast of characters, making them--male and female, old and young, aristocratic and common, English and foreign--sound like different real people. Among my favorites are his Cromwell (tough, intelligent, witty), More (learned, snide, superior), Wosley (John Geilgud channeling Oscar Wilde), Catherine (strong, sharp, Spanish), Norfolk (proud, merciless, choleric), Anne Boleyn ("unforgiving, hard to please, easy to offend"), and Mary Boleyn (sad, flirtatious, mischievous).
I recommend Wolf Hall to anyone interested in British history or in fine literature full of complex characters and rich writing.
Wolf Hall is a perfect book. The audiobook is almost perfect. Thomas More's vocal characterization is drippingly evil and snakelike, and it doesn't fit the characterization in the book, which presents more as earnestly fanatical and unexpectedly sly. Several times the narrator confuses the voices, due to the confusing pronouns in the book. He will do a Cromwell voice, for example, when Thomas More is talking.
The Wosley voice is perfect, and Henry sounds regal. Anne, if possible, sounds over-regal, and Chapuys is fun to listen to.
This book is great! An old story told in the clever perspective of Thomas Cromwell. As great as the book is it doesn't compare with the narrator. Simon Slater is a genius. With his voices and inflections he pulls us into 16th century England as if we were living there amidst all the drama and angst.
One of the best stories in history should have been riveting. Although well researched and historically accurate, Mantel's insistence on using personal pronouns without a referent requires constant rereading (rewinding) once the reader figures out who she's talking about. Rather than a stylistic innovation it only comes across as literary affectation that detracts from the readers ability to become engrossed in the narrative. Should have been five stars with a good editor putting her foot down with the author.
After reading nothing but great reviews for this series, and loving this period, I bought both books. I thought they were both so boring that I was having a hard time staying attentive. And then the endings were just there. Not the least bit satisfying. Sorry, but I wouldn't recommend this to anyone.
Very few books totally capture both my imagination and interest, "Wolf Hall" is one of those rare book that does. The story tells of times in Britain's history where a king's marriage, and its legality, based on questions of virginity and "incest" (by marrying your brother's wife), are debated in courts, in pulpits, and in other countries. Intriguing and filled with intrigue, Hilary Mantel's story of the trials of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, as told through the character of Thomas Cromwell weaves an intricate story that is impossible to ignore. Surely the only complaint I can make is that I had to actually pay attention to the story as I listened to it play out! No sentence was superfluous. No introduction of characters without merit. No storyline irrelevant.
Outstanding in every way, I award this book my highest praise. As a persnickety reader and listener, I usually read and listen to books that meet some of my criteria for being worthwhile. This book met all my criteria. Interesting, fast paced, strong women protagonists, great vocabulary, believable story, heart wrenching in some category, a yearning for more, sense of loss when the story ended. Brava to Hilary Mantel, bravo to narrator Simon Slater, bravo to all of us smart enough to read this book!
This book had me entranced from the moment it began. I would have loved had I read it - but listening was an even greater pleasure, the narrator Simon Slater has a wonderful voice and cadence. The characters are beautifully drawn, though I don't know how accurately, I want more! I hope Mantel follows King Henry and Cromwell forward in another book soon!