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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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