Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Parts I & II

A couple of weeks ago I announced that Natalie (Coffee and a Book Chick)  and I would be reading Hilary Mantel’s  Wolf Hall, and I invited you to join us. I believe there are about 17 of us reading  in total, and all are welcome to join the readalong at any time, or, chime in if you have already read the book. There will be spoilers for the book in these posts, so if you haven’t read it already, tread carefully! I will put up a spoiler free book review at the conclusion of the book.

The reason that Natalie and I decided to tackle this book together was the reputation preceding it- it’s been called difficult, confusing and hard to get through by some of the most dedicated historical fiction readers- but I have found it to be fascinating.  I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I took to the book, which opens with the brutal beating of Thomas Cromwell at the hands of his father Walter.  This bit of violence at the very beginning of the novel gives a glimpse of what prompts Thomas to run away in his teens, and to forge the path that leads him to dealings with Cardinal Wolsey and Henry the Eighth. Mantel’s writing is vivid and evocative, and at all times I felt apart of the action as the characters plotted and schemed. @bookmagicdeb alerted Natalie and me that it’s best to assume Thomas Cromwell is speaking whenever we are unsure of the narrator, and that little trick proved very helpful. Did anyone else have trouble following the narrative or in keeping track of the unfolding events?

In these initial chapters, I thought a lot about what it meant to be a monarch, part of a royal family or a part of a royal court. The amount of danger inherent in their positions and lives is quite astounding when you stop and give it some thought, and while none of this is a surprise to me, I do believe that Mantel’s writing has brought this home  in a more immediate way than anything I have read recently. All the players in the novel, from Ann Boleyn and her parents and family, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, and to a lesser extent, Henry, make decisions that have a powerful effect and their lives and many others and will come back to haunt them- decisions whose consequences will mean death. The history illustrated in the second part showed how easily parents plotted against and killed their own children, siblings, spouses and basically anyone else who got in the way of power and controlling the throne. These were no holds bars type of fights.

The best thing about Mantel’s writing is the amount of compassion and insight she brings into what can be dry characters from history. The story is not unfamiliar to me, but those who usually don’t elicit much sympathy from me, did so here. She did a great job with Cardinal Wolsey, as he is chiefly one of the characters who has not moved me in past readings of him. But I really felt for him as he comes to terms with what might be his fate at the hands of his ruthless and mercurial king, and I also appreciated more of his personality and what had made him so successful as a cardinal – all without knowing that he is not blameless in what befalls him. I enjoyed his wit and banter, his easy relationship with Thomas and the brilliance he displayed as a strategist. Unfortunately as time goes on, he suffers from being out of touch with the people’s needs and with Henry’s.

I am definitely looking forward to finding out what happens to all involved with the benefit of Mantel’s rich and compassionate storytelling.

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