Nancy's Reviews > Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
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's review
Oct 27, 2010

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bookshelves: award-winner, historical-fiction, 16th-century, england

It took me a while to get through this ambitious retelling of Henry VIII’s struggle to produce a male heir. It was often hard to follow who was saying what, with so many characters, and the author wasn’t always clear. I did appreciate her list of the ‘cast’ at the beginning of the book however, which I referred to often.

The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from meager beginnings to be the King’s foremost advisor, wearing many different titles. We see his part in assisting Henry VIII in his break from the Church of Rome so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. We all know what eventually happens to her, but it isn’t covered in this telling. The characters representing Rome’s side of the conflict begin with Cromwell’s former patron, Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, and end with Lord Chancellor Thomas More, who steadfastly refuses to concede to Henry’s demands. He defends himself by saying, “Against Henry’s kingdom, I have all the kingdoms of Christendom. Against . . . your bishops, I have a hundred saints. Against your one parliament, I have all the general councils of the church, stretching back for a thousand years.” (pp. 598-599)

I give this book four stars for all the detailed research and the interesting tales and customs of the period (the reason I like historic fiction). The short chapter on Cromwell’s reaction to his portrait, painted by Hans Holbein, is great. As his family, the emperor’s man Chapuys, and others give their opinions, Cromwell remains unconvinced. It is not until his son Gregory arrives home to offer his view that Cromwell is persuaded to the likeness: “He (Cromwell) turns to the painting. ‘I fear Mark was right.’ ‘Who is Mark?’ ‘A silly little boy . . . I once heard him say I looked like a murderer.’ Gregory says, ‘Did you not know?’” (p. 489)

And though I expect historical fiction books to be lengthy, this one was just too long. For that and Mantel’s often confusing writing style, it gets two stars. I figure the average of three stars for the book as a whole is just about right.

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