Written by Hilary Mantel
Published by Macmillan
Review by Meredith Allard
When I was younger, I could fall head first into books and forget the real world around me. I remember when I was in the fifth grade and I was sitting under the awning at the lunch tables while the other kids were running across the blacktop playground during recess. A teacher, with the very best of intentions, asked me if I wouldn’t rather be out with the others. I answered, “No, thank you,” and turned back to my book. As I grew older, life got in the way of reading. I still love to read above all else, but now, as an adult, there’s always something lingering somewhere—bills, errands, and everything else in the world—and I can’t seem to lose myself in reading the way I used to.
Enter Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I had just watched a marathon of Showtime’s The Tudors over the course of a month, and I was more familiar with Henry VIII’s story than I was before. I bought a copy of Mantel’s novel, the first in her Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, because I spotted the locket-sized picture of Good King Henry staring, somewhat slyly, from the O in the title on the cover. Mantel brings a fascinating angle to the oft-told Tudor tale by telling the story from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. Cromwell accomplished what no man before him had—he was a commoner who rose to an important position in the kingdom, right-hand man to the king himself. From the first paragraph of the first page of Wolf Hall, I was sucked into the story in a way I hadn’t been able to lose myself in a book in years. Mantel does what is most difficult in historical fiction yet most necessary—she weaves the historical research seamlessly into the saga so that the narrative doesn’t read like a story/then research/then more story like historical fiction sometimes can. I was transported to 16th century England, with all its reformations and intrigues, a time when a book of British baby boy names had five names in it and three of them were Thomas.
The funny thing is, I found myself picturing James Frain as I read Wolf Hall, which is what happens to me when I watch a television show before reading a book about the same character. With all due respect to Thomas Cromwell, James Frain is far better looking; although, to be fair, I suppose Thomas Cromwell was better looking (spoiler alert!) with his head than without it. But we’re not there yet in Wolf Hall. In this first book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, we end with Henry’s much-fought-for union with Anne Boleyn. Tudor fans already know Thomas Cromwell’s unfortunate fate. The captivating part is the journey as Mantel’s expert storytelling leads us there.
I bought the second book in Mantel’s trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, when I was halfway through Wolf Hall. I’m already looking forward to it.
Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.