Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall: A NovelTitle: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Pages: 604 very long pages
Published: Picador 2010
My Rating: 4 stars

Most memorable quote was by my son: "You're still reading that book?"  I felt like it took me for.ev.er.

What it's about:
  • less about Henry VIII's bedroom and more about his part in spurring a pivotal change in England's history. "The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms."
  • partially about the Boleyns, but even more about Thomas Cromwell, and the fact that there are always two sides to a story.  "A lie is no less a lie because it is a thousand years old."
  • not Wolf Hall so much, rather the wolves that men become in their fight to accomplish their desires. "The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man."
What I loved:
  • how close and approachable the characters were.  Not in a "will you be my friend?" way, but in a human, three dimensional sort of way. "Men say [...] 'I can't endure it when women cry' --just as people say, 'I can't endure this wet weather.'  As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen."
  • the fresh spin on Cromwell and the other characters.  Rather than feeling like their thoughts and motivations were imagined/created in order to be different from the traditional interpretation, it seemed as though their true character was finally being seen.  "There cannot be new things in England.  There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old.  [...] Don't try to go it alone, or they'll think you're pirates."
  • the insight into the religious aspect.  At a time when the Pope was the final authority and Protestants such as Tyndale were in hiding for attempting an English translation of the bible, religion is so intertwined with motivation that the exclusion of these details would make for an incomplete explanation of history.  This subplot gives the story another layer and adds dimension to something that otherwise could fade into legend.  "There is always somebody ready to claim that these are the end times, and nominate his neighbor as the Antichrist."

What I didn't love:
  • the immense amount of characters that made it difficult for me to correctly picture what was happening.  I do think that this book would be better enjoyed if the reader possessed a bit more knowledge of the history behind the book.  I should have known when I saw the cast of characters at the beginning of the book--after the first 40 pages or so, the confusion starts to settle in.
  • pronouns without antecedents. He, Cromwell, is often referred to as simply "he" which can occasionally become confusing.  I didn't hate this--I like intentional creative use of language, and I do think that it served to bring you closer to Cromwell--it just often left me frustrated, feeling like the author was making the book intentionally difficult to read.
  • how long it took to read.  The writing wasn't difficult to read, so why did it take me so stinking long?  I'm guessing that it was partially due to the fact that the writing is complex enough that it requires you to mentally engage, and partially due to the fact that there isn't much of a driving force behind the book taunting you to keep reading.  I  definitely need to chase this long read with some quick, fun reads.
Some other favorite quotes:
  • Why are we so attached to the severities of the past?  Why are we so proud of ourselves for 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.
  • She looks him up and down. "I suppose you are Cromwell?"  If a man spoke to you in that tone, you'd invite him to step outside and ask someone to hold your coat.
  • Already there are too many books in the world.  There are more every day.  One man cannot hope to read them all.
  • Henry says, "Do what you have to do.  I will back you."  It's like hearing words you've waited all your life to hear.  It's like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.
Will you like it?  There's a lot to love, certainly.  If you don't need something plot driven, nor even necessarily character driven, and you have no problem taking your time with a book, then it may be right up your alley.  If you do read it, be sure to let me know so that I can see what you thought!  Have you read this already?  Tried?  Leave a link to your review if you have one--let me know what you thought.


  1. I started Wolf Hall but didn't get too far before the library needed it back for the next person on the hold list. I recently got my own copy, but I haven't been in the mood for a book that will require such an investment!

    I do remember, from what I did read, the use of "he" being a little confusing.

    I'll definitely read this eventually...just not yet :-)

  2. The book does take a lot out of my brain. It's not difficult to read but I just have to put it down because I cannot process any more of the complexity. It's not meant to be rushed. I go by small installment and that is why it's still on my current reading pile. On a side note: I read Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost--it deals with the same historical period. After that book I know I really have to take my time with Wolf Hall.

  3. Erin--I agree that you need to be read to invest in a book before deciding to read it. Otherwise it'll be a pain!

    Matt--Because it wasn't difficult to read I think I was surprised at how much effort I had to put into it. War and Peace was much easier to digest!

  4. You thought much along the same lines as me.

    After a tricky start (I stopped reading it and then went back again later on) I loved this book. My review is here.

  5. I had many of the same reactions. I don't recommend it to people though--I've only yet met one friend who loved it. Most others like it with reservations, which is a hard sell. Fascinating portrait, and more important to those who were taught Cromwell was a bad guy. (So kind of like a really long, densely charactered Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.)

  6. Margaret--thanks for linking your review. I love how you said that your knowledge of the time period before reading Wolf Hall "all seemed secondhand." I felt the same way, that I was reading historical fiction for the first time...or rather that it was more than fiction, more than nonfiction, you were just there.

    Girl Detective--I've been thinking the same thing: I really don't think this is a book I could recommend to people. It was a great look at Cromwell, though, wasn't it? Too bad it isn't a bit more digestible.


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!