Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I really wanted to like this book. My dissertation tutor – who is an awesome woman – mentioned that she liked it and so I thought it must be good. Unfortunately I don’t share the same opinion.

Wolf Hall is set in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Queen Katherine is being forced from the throne to be replaced by Anne Boleyn and the English court is beginning to doubt the supreme authority of the Pope in Rome. I feel that this period of Tudor history is pretty well covered in contemporary literature and culture (the BBC TV series, The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, spring readily to mind) so I think that Mantel really needed to bring something new to the story. Obviously this is historical fiction so certain elements can’t be moulded too far out of shape, however to pique my interest there had to be something different. And in some ways, Wolf Hall delivered.

It is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rises to become the king’s right hand man and Master Secretary. This is quite different from anything else I have read and so I guess it counts as a fresh take on the well-told story. I also really liked his character; Thomas Cromwell is a self-made man, with fearsome intellect and a reputation to match. I found myself rooting for him all the way through and he was the reason I trudged through the rest of the novel. The character had such potential that I kept expecting the story to pick up to support him. But instead I wasn’t gripped and over the almost-three-weeks that it took to me to read it, I found myself putting off reading it rather than wanting to keep picking it up.

The reason for this procrastinating I put down to the unusual narration of the novel. There are A LOT of characters in the novel (so many it requires a character list and family tree at the beginning for reference) and many of them are male. This makes it pretty hard to follow conversations between the characters when the pronoun ‘he’ is used excessively with little indication to which ‘he’ is actually supposed to be speaking. After the first hundred pages I learnt to adopt the rule: when in doubt assume the ‘he’ is Cromwell. This didn’t make me feel any less frustrated with the novel. To make matters worse in these confusing conversations, Mantel appears to use speech marks completely randomly: sometimes using them, sometimes not. I don’t know what this was supposed to achieve but it certainly didn’t add anything and I just found it more and more annoying.

And I still have some reservations about the novel’s originality – when I finally got to the end, I expected something else. I couldn’t put my finger on what (very vague and probably over critical I know) but I felt a bit disappointed if I’m honest.

I’ve definitely ranted enough, perhaps an unfair amount as the novel wasn’t completely without merit. The corruption and decadence of Henry’s royal court provides plentiful opportunity for dark and satirical humour, which Mantel writes well. There were also passages of beautiful writing but overall this wasn’t enough to make this a novel that I would recommend.

Maybe I’ll give the BBC series of Wolf Hall a go and see if that proves more entertaining.


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