Review | Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1) – Hilary Mantel

About the Book

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. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and 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?

653 pages (paperback)
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I’m going to let you in on a secret, dear reader. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction. It isn’t that I don’t respect the stuff, because I do. It’s just that I’d rather read about what actually happened in a nonfiction book, than how the author preferred to dramatize events in a fictional rendering. Another secret? I’m pretty much sick of the Tudors for now. I’m full up. So, with all that being said, it’s no wonder I pushed off reading this book as long as I did. In fact, I think basically the entire planet has read it before me. I’m late on the train. I apologize. 

There isn’t a whole lot about Cromwell that really interested me much. He’s a long-dead lawyer, and reading about his life, in my mind, sounded about as exciting as reading a biography of a long-dead accountant. Thrilling stuff, right? 

The fact is, this book gave me one of the most severe book hangovers I have ever experienced. 

“It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

What makes Cromwell interesting is, quite honestly, his proximity to one of the most notorious kings in Western history. Everyone at least has heard the name Henry VIII. However, what Mantel does in this book is bring Cromwell to life. Suddenly, under her deft hand, Cromwell becomes far more than a long-dead lawyer who happened to be close to a guy who offed some of his wives, but a man who stands on his own two legs and lives and breathes on and off the page.

Wolf Hall is a kind of odd book, in the fact that the entire plot of the book is basically Thomas Cromwell existing in this interesting period of history. That ended up being enough to pull me through and keep me hooked, but the reason for that is how incredibly well Mantel crafts her characters. The entire book hinges on this one man, and he truly shines. In fact, I have a very, very hard time remembering a book where a character felt this real and dimensional to me. It is not every day that I sit down to read and become so engrossed I forget I am reading. However, if you’re the kind of person who needs something else to drive the book, the life and times of Thomas Cromwell might not be enough for you. 

“Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It’s not as if we had a choice.” 

This book became, basically, a study for me on how to write a good character. Thomas Cromwell became so real; I could almost hear his voice. He’s at times cantankerous, vengeful, ruthless, and cunning. He’s also got a softer side which occasionally peeks out. Mantel does not shy away from showing his foibles, his mistakes, his fantastic errors, but she also shows how he is a man fit to rise to the times he is living through. From a rough childhood, Cromwell had to learn to be wily to survive in the world, and it is ultimately his ability to turn in any direction when the chips are falling that makes him a perfect fit for someone as temperamental and unpredictable as Henry VIII and his lush court. 

And it isn’t just Cromwell who shines. Every character, even those who only appear for a moment here and there, are just as alive and vividly crafted as he is. This, I must say, is quite a feat, as this book is set in a time and place where the overarching figure (Henry VIII) is so large and looming, he tends to overshadow everyone and everything around him. Even in after hundreds of years, Henry VIII is so looming and smothering, it’s hard to see around him. And yet, in spite of this, Mantel has managed to make everyone from a stuffy lawyer to a stable boy far more interesting than the characters that we usually hang on when we read or learn about this time period. 

“No ruler in the history of the world has ever been able to afford a war. They’re not affordable things. No prince ever says, ‘This is my budget, so this is the kind of war I can have.” 

Mantel’s writing deserves some time in the spotlight as well, because while I wouldn’t qualify this as exactly lyrical, it steps a few toes in that water and sort of lingers around in the shallows. Every other paragraph was full of metaphor that just stopped me in my tracks. Every word was carefully thought out and planned. Everything had its place, and its time to be used. The descriptions were magnificent. At times, her prose veered into almost aggressive territory, these short, punctuated sentences that lodged right under my skin where they were meant to. However, at other times you get these moments of stillness and silence, these contemplative scenes where nothing is happening but my god, that firelight is described beautifully, and I just want to wallow in it for a while. 

“The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.” 

So, what do we have here? 

One of the best historical fiction books I’ve ever read. Incredible character development and stunning world building are nestled within some of the most amazing prose I’ve read. This book had everything I ever wanted to read in it. It’s character driven, intimate, uncomfortable and educational. Thomas Cromwell is the furthest thing from a stuffy lawyer I could possibly imagine, veering, I think, into anti-hero territory in some respects. Being a man on the sidelines, close to power, he sees and experiences a lot. There is always something happening, and in my mind, it was over far too soon.

I think I’m the last person in the world to read Wolf Hall, but I’m so glad I finally did. It was an absolute marvel of literature.

5/5 stars