Word of Mouth: Wolf Hall

Word of Mouth books are books I pick up or discover because of someone else’s feedback or encouragement. Thanks, Megan, for the nudge to read this one! 


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I picked up Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, at the Denver Public Library Book Sale last fall. One of my best friend’s best friends recommended I move Wolf Hall up my TBR list. I scurried around the internet after her recommendation and became even more interested in it. I don’t normally read a lot of historical fiction, but when I do, it’s all about that British history. On our UK trip this summer I tore through the Cousins’ War books by Philippa Gregory while we traipsed about London. Those novels were a little friendlier for vacation reading than Wolf Hall, though.

Wolf Hall is intimidating. It’s 560 pages of historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell, a major political figure in Henry VIII’s court. It won both the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009. It’s also on the BBC’s best books of the 21st century list. That’s a lot of positive press.

I struggled, initially, to follow what was going on in this story. I started it on audiobook and had to switch over to the hard copy to keep up with the dialogue and different characters. But once I found my bearings, I really enjoyed the story (and the audiobook).

Before I read this work, my familiarity with Thomas Cromwell was limited to The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl (clearly, I like my British historical adaptations steamy). Usually portrayed as a somewhat unscrupulous politician, Mantel’s Cromwell is much more forgiving. He’s witty, sarcastic, brilliant and engaging. This first novel in the planned trilogy covers Cromwell’s childhood, rise to political power, and influence in Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn.

If you are anything like me, all your Tudor-loving synapses are lighting up. I’m not unique in my fascination with this aspect of British history. I never get over how influential one woman became in dismantling an entire religious system. The situation, of course, was more complex than that, but Cromwell’s relationship to Henry, the Protestant Reformation and the founding of the Church of England held my interest throughout the novel. It’s rare for such a lengthy work of fiction to so fully immerse me in a different world. I think the writing is amazing – Mantel’s versions of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and most of all Cromwell are complex and vivid. Though it was challenging for me to read, I adored this book and can’t wait to read Bring Up the Bodies.

I’m also excited to watch the BBC adaptation on PBS later this year (Damian Lewis from Homeland will be Henry VIII). Did anyone with BBC Two catch the premiere this weekend?

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