No matter how many accolades Wolf Hall has gotten, it’s hard not to tuck into a “Thomas Cromwell trilogy” without feeling a bit like the 73-year-old version of yourself (just with fewer afghans; I plan to have a lot of afghans). And for the first hundred pages of Hilary Mantel’s inaugural Cromwell novel, I wondered whether I had perhaps jumped the gun on King Henry-themed historical fiction: For all its wit and depth and (what I assume is) contextual accuracy, Wolf Hall was failing to take me out of myself. It seemed a book for a quiet afternoon at the library, or a peaceful morning in bed, not the kind of novel that might make itself heard over the cacophony of a subway commute.
Wolf Hall is, put simply, a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, from his time as right-hand man to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (lots of Thomases in this book) through his ascension in the court of King Henry VIII. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and has already been picked up for the stage and television. Its sequel, Bring up the Bodies, also won the Man Booker Prize, reminding us that British lady authors can write bestselling literary series that don’t include wizarding schools or vomit-flavored jelly beans.
It was with all these commendations in the back of my mind that I began to worry: What if I’m not smart enough to appreciate this book? What if my lack of complete engrossment is just a reflection of me, my intellectual inadequacies, my inability to zone out the tinny buzz of four different sets of headphones on a rickety subway car? What if all that Real Housewives really is making me stupider?
And then it happened. Somewhere around page 100, I found myself increasing absorbed in WH, caught up in its characters’ manipulations and, weirdly, the “what will happen?” of a plot technically resolved more than 400 years ago. Because sure, everyone [who has watched The Other Boleyn Girl] knows the story of Henry VII and his mistress Anne, who demanded the dissolution of his marriage with Queen Katherine so that they might marry, and who basically caused the split of the Catholic church. (Who runs the world? Girls.) But while Mantel wastes no small energy on the feminist concubine that is Anne Boleyn, her real triumph is in making Cromwell a worthy protagonist to such an inherently fascinating ensemble. A stern, pragmatic, political and not always likable man, Cromwell is nonetheless sympathetic, compassionate, and smart. He’s a background image brought to the foreground, and yet revealed in such a way that it feels as though Mantel is getting to know him herself.
I am not often a historical fiction-er, if only because the knowledge that something happened for real only exacerbates my fear of forgetting characters’ names and important events (I practically took notes for 11/22/63, and I’m not sure if that events counts as hisfic). And yes, it took me a few chapters to appreciate the nuance of Wolf Hall, the pristine language and subtle humor and preponderance of plague-related deaths. But once I did, it was indeed like stepping out of myself, into a time of masculine robes and abacus-based accounting and adultery that makes Monica Lewinsky look like Michelle Obama.
If you get tripped up on lengthy character lists, or moderately old-timey writing, or plots set anywhere outside the 21st century, at first glance Wolf Hall won’t seem like the book for you. But trust the praise: It’s a fascinating glimpse of an oft-overlooked character in the whole King Henry saga (which it was probably easy to be, what with the six wives and the beheadings and such). Cromwell may not be the most intuitive choice for a sprawling dramatic literary trilogy, but that’s why we have authors like Hilary Mantel. To be counterintuitively amazing.
TITLE: Wolf Hall
AUTHOR: Hilary Mantel
PAGES: 604 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Bring up the Bodies, A Place of Greater Safety
SORTA LIKE: Game of Thrones meets The Tudors
FIRST LINE: “‘So now, get up.’”