11 May 2014

A Man in Full

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel

At the front of Wolf Hall is a list of characters. There are fifty of them. By the time I’d finished the book, every one, even the most minor, had a distinct face and personality. Although the action is narrated exclusively from the principal character’s point of view and we are always privy to his thoughts, we are nonetheless enabled to form our own opinions of all the characters. These may not always agree with Cromwell's view of them — or even, perhaps, the author’s. 

That is literary mastery of a very high order.

Of course, the principal characters in this story are well known to us. Biographies and contemporary portraits of 
Henry VIII of England, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragorn, Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More all exist and are familiar to many people, particularly in the UK, from their history schoolbooks. But the virtue of Mantel’s writing is that she disposes of our preconceptions regarding these famous actors on history’s stage and turns them into real, complex, conflicted people.

The story rattles along at breakneck speed. Though it is all history (there are times when Mantel even tells you what letters Cromwell wrote, and to whom, on a particular night, and you can bet your life those letters really were written, and still exist somewhere), she manages to create tension, suspense and instants of surprise and revelation despite the reader’s foreknowledge of the course of events (though it is probably not advisable to look up the history of the period in too much detail while reading the book).

Period and place are brought to life in loving, often gritty detail. As for the historical and political context, I don't think any author could have managed it better. Frankly, I don't see how I can praise this book highly enough.

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