Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review of Wolf Hall

I had planned on posting my review of the 1986 film 'Lady Jane' directed by Trevor Nunn starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lady Jane Grey, and Cary Elwes as her husband Dudley but my DVR broke last night. Instead I was able to finish Hilary Mantel's Booker prize winning novel WOLF HALL which will be released this Tuesday, October 13.

Here is a brief teaser:

In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.

Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

The novel is like a rich hearty meaty stew that needs to be savored over time with say a glass of mulled wine on a winter's day, not rushed through. As I said in an earlier post, this is not a fast read. It is a amazingly rich portrait tof the Tudor era, although at times I felt a time-line was needed to figure out exactly when things were happening. Mantel has a tendency to skip around, as Cromwell remembers key events from his past, and the narrator recounts events that Cromwell couldn't have first hand knowledge of.

I found Cromwell to be an interesting choice for a protagonist. There are some readers who might not find him likeable, but I found him sympathetic and even admirable at times. It's a testament to Mantel's skill as a writer that she is able to convey the complexity of the man without softening him. Cromwell is ambitious, wily, yet practical, hard yet extremely loyal to Cardinal Wolsey. These two men, who both came from nothing, Wolsey the son of an Ipswich butcher, and Cromwell the poor kid from Putney are two of a kind. It's easy to see why Wolsey might have seen Cromwell as a son, and Cromwell definitely has daddy issues.

Cromwell has a great love for his children and relatives, although he's not always able to show it and he's a devout follower of the new religion. He can also be arrogant, and sarcastic and something of a bully. What I found most interesting about him is that he has no illusions about anyone. He's aware that Henry is fickle and can just as quickly go off someone as bring them into his inner circle. All the usual suspects are here, the Duke of Suffolk, the Duke of Norfolk (who inexplicably disappeared after the first season of The Tudors, Mary Boleyn (who is not the good girl portrayed in The Other Boleyn Girl), Jane Seymour, Cranmer, and those who might not be so familiar to readers, like Elizabeth Barton. Readers hoping for a sympathetic portrait of Anne Boleyn will be disappointed. She comes off as a grasping, ambitious shrew in Mantel's version. Mantel also repeats the rumors that Henry VIII had carnal knowledge of Anne and Mary Boleyn's mother Lady Elizabeth Howard. Apparently Henry liked to keep it in the family, the Howard family that is, since his fifth wife was Anne's cousin Katherine.

The book also gives the reader a good sense of how society was beginning to change during the Tudor period, as self-made men like Cromwell and Wolsey were starting to make their way at court, and the old aristocracy had to reluctantly make way for these upstarts who were gaining the ear of the King. Not much is really known about Crowell's early life but Mantel manages to fill the reader in with a plausible history for him.
Readers who know their Tudor history will want to rush out and buy this book, even though they know how it all ends up. At times, it may feel like one needs a scorecard to keep up with all the family relationships, and frequent trips to the computer to look things up on Wikipedia! But if the reader sticks with the book they will not be disappointed. The title WOLF HALL has both a literal and probably a figurative meaning. I won't spoil it for those who haven't read the book but I was shocked and surprised when I found out. She also ends the book in an interesting place, not the place that you think that she would end it. Reading this book, I was reminded of the historical fiction that I read growing up, authors like Taylor Caldwell, Georgette Heyer, and Anya Seton, authors who took the reader on a journey into a different world.

FYI: It appears that Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell is related to Thomas Cromwell, which I have always wondered. Oliver Cromwell was his great-great nephew through Cromwell's sister Catherine.

I'm giving a copy of WOLF HALL away, the contest ends on Friday October 16th. To be entered, just leave a comment on this post. If you twitter about the giveaway, you get an 2 extra entries, and if you don't follow the blog, but become a follower, you'll receive an extra entry.

Addendum: I have removed portions of this review that sounded a little too similar to another review on the web. It was inadvertant and I'm sorry for any confusion or harm that it may have caused the author Leslie Carroll.

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