I felt a strong urge to read “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel when I read her frank article in Intelligent Life on how she perceived awards as an author, in particular the Man Booker Prize that she (deservedly) won for this novel. The book is historical fiction set in the period 1500-1535 and tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII of England. The relentless pursuit of Anne Boleyn by the king and the resultant set of tumultuous events that led to the English Reformation separating the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church forms the backdrop for this novel. This book is very well-written and is well worth the time it takes to read it.
If you are somewhat familiar with the history of this period, you wouldn't find much in the plot of the novel since it stays very faithful to the historical record. What is brilliant about this novel is the way it manages to show well-rounded portrayals for most of the characters in the book - their human side - rather than the black and white portrayals that one usually gets to see in retellings of history. Another brilliant aspect of this novel is how it manages to recreate life in 16th century England, especially the hold of religion, class and epidemics on life and that of men on women. These aspects provide the context for the reader to appreciate the behavior of the folks involved as events unfolded around them. It is quite an achievement on the part of the author to present an interesting story while remaining true to the historical record.
The book is one of those rare pieces of good literature that remains quite accessible throughout, without betraying any condescension towards the lay reader. Even though the book is set in 16th century England, the characters mercifully speak an English that should be readily understood by most modern speakers of the language. There are no irritating tricks of the narrative, deployment of clever metaphors, use of obscure terms, etc. to distract the reader from enjoying the story. Once again, this restraint on the part of the author to refrain from faux sophistication in her writing is quite commendable in my opinion. I really wish more authors would follow her example.
The narration of the book is from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell (in the third person) and the pronouns “he”, “his”, etc. when used in this book usually refer to Thomas Cromwell. This took me a little while to get used to and was somewhat confusing in some places. It also turns out to be a little clumsy as the author has to clarify who is the subject being referred to by such a pronoun at some places in the book (so the whole point of using a pronoun is lost). This is of course a minor quibble against an otherwise excellent book.
While reading the book, I kept wondering why it was titled “Wolf Hall”, the residence of the Seymour family, where hardly any action takes place - the bulk of the action actually takes place at Austin Friars, the residence of Thomas Cromwell. Towards the end of the book, Thomas Cromwell uses the phrase homo homini lupus (“man is a wolf to man”), which captures the essence of the book and in effect reveals a possible explanation for the title.
It seems that a sequel to this book is in the works. I am eagerly waiting to lay my hands on that book.