Wolf Hall: book review

whallI’ve only watched one episode of Masterpiece’s “Wolf Hall” mini-series so far — I’m saving the rest for a binge-watch at the end. Damian Lewis is so perfect for King Henry I can’t believe I didn’t think of him before. Mark Rylance isn’t how I pictured Cromwell exactly, but he’s wonderful as well. It seems like a marvelous production. Despite that, though, it’ll never match the experience of reading Hilary Martel’s novel for me. Wolf Hall was one of the finest, most engrossing books I’ve ever read.

Reposting my earlier review here…

The hardest book review to write is one for a book you loved. It’s difficult not to gush, to come up with useful analysis, even look for weak areas, when all you want to do is ramble on and on about how exceptional it was. Talking about Wolf Hall is like that for me.

Mantel turns the character of Thomas Cromwell on his head, leading us away from all we’ve previously been told of him. Not a villain here at all, he is merely a man, and a fairly good one. He is an ambitious man who strives and reaches for more, but one who is compassionate, feeling, and deeply thoughtful. A commoner from the worst of beginnings, he manages to rise to high office on merit, and no small amount of intelligence, alone. He lives, he laughs and he mourns, and mostly he builds for the future. Reading every line, even when it is not Cromwell speaking, feels like you are reading his mind, hearing things as he would have, seeing as he would have seen, and feeling as he would have as well.

Wolf Hall takes place during the heady years when Henry VIII pursued Anne Boleyn, then split the church in order to take her as his wife. Throughout these pages, Anne is a palpable, throbbing presence, always felt if not all that often seen. (“She says yes, yes, yes, then she says no,” one man describes her aptly in her absence.) And Henry himself is captured so perfectly, as both prince and man —

“The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being: you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.” (p. 392)

But it is not only the famous Mantel brings to life, it’s also the lesser beings, the people of London, of York, of Whitehall and Putney, Calais and Essex. People of the court, people of the streets, people of the kitchens of the great halls of England. The sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, it all seems to be contained on these pages.

The details, the atmosphere, the craft in which words are spun and tales are told, all of this combines to make Wolf Hall a work of literary art. I devoured every word and longed for more, and cannot recommend it enough.