Friday, July 27, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

     Henry VIII is one of the most discussed figures in history, but Hilary Mantel's 2009 prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall brings the famous Tudor's story to life from a rather unique perspective.  Wolf Hall begins in the early 1500s as the King begins his affair with the infamous Anne Boleyn.  It's a time of uncertainty and turmoil between Henry's court and the catholic church, and Mr. Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer, is right in the middle of these delicate affairs.  Once an advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell's current business revolves around keeping the King happy, which is not always an easy task.  Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, has yet to produce a male heir, and after 20 years of marriage, the King has requested an annulment.  With his affections turned toward Anne Boleyn, King Henry's court is greatly distressed.  Questions of loyalty, sin, dishonesty, and duty arise, and Thomas Cromwell must tread lightly in order to prevent dissent and uprisings.

     It all sounds ridiculous and dramatic, which it is, but it's also true.  Henry VIII was known as a gluttonous womanizer even during his reign, but he is most famous for his relationship with the Boleyns - especially the legal, social, and religious ramifications of said relationships.  But, as Wolf Hall shows, the King did not act alone.  He had lawyers, advisors, courtiers, scholars, diplomats, and religious figures all offering heaps of advice.  In fact, there are 5 pages in this novel reserved to identify such advisors, which, believe me, comes in very handy!

     Hilary Mantel received tremendous praise and recognition for this piece of historical fiction, and it is well-deserved.  Wolf Hall is one of the most complicated and involved books I've ever read, but well worth the effort.  I would like to point out, however, that it's not exactly a novel one can rush through - especially not without a fairly well-developed knowledge of this period in British history.  And sometimes it's difficult to keep the characters straight, considering that half the characters are named Thomas, Mary, Henry, or Elizabeth.  But Wolf Hall still manages to be completely engrossing.  It probably won't be on your list of favorites if you don't like historical fiction, but it's impossible to not be impressed by Mantel's extensive knowledge of such a fascinating area of history.  Her writing is unparalleled - I've not come across anything that compares to her unique writing style.  Sometimes it's formal, sometimes it's conversational, and other times it's full of dark, witty dialogue.  It may be a little inconsistent, but it perfectly reflects the rippling, volatile nature of England under Henry VIII's rule.

     Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Wolf Hall, and if you're still curious after reading this fabulous novel, Mantel published a sequel entitled Bring Up the Bodies earlier this year, which, by the way, is on the 2012 Man Booker Prize longlist.

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