Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The story of someone's life, even in a work of historical fiction like this, doesn't generally quite have the same plot structure where we build to a climax and fall to the conclusion. This book almost did. It was the story of Thomas Cromwell (not Oliver, I keep reminding myself) and Thomas More. Oh, large parts of the story are seemingly about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but those only serve to advance the Cromwell-More plot, IMO.
Cromwell is portrayed as the hero in this story although we never really know him. Mantel keeps us off our toes with a patchy view of Cromwell's history and character. Some obscure antecedents help keep the reader reeling. There are many characters - in Cromwell's household, the King's household, the kingdom at large - and a lot of Henry/Thomas/William/Richards. The who's who is sometimes a struggle. Cromwell, though, never forgets. Every slight, every hurt are going to come back around and Cromwell will deal with them. More, Cromwell's respected enemy, is included in that list. The story revolves around their enmity, their respect for the other's abilities, their similarities and differences - from how they run their households to what they may (or may not) believe.
Early in the book,Mantel says, "Beneath every history, another history." pg 61. She later has Cromwell remember, "Try always, Wolsey says, to find out what people wear under their clothes." This theme of what comes before or underneath reappears again and again. Lady Carey (Mary Boleyn as was) is wearing sleeves made of fabric sent by Cromwell, and fox fur. Thomas More is wearing ... well you'll have to read to find out what he wears underneath. The digging to what is below and what comes before helps Cromwell in his work. I think this will be even more in the next book where we Bring Up the Bodies.
This is not an easy read - it takes patience and some going back. Mantel is not going to astound you with her vocabulary or syntax or sparkling wit, but she builds and builds carefully so that an idea or phrase the reader may have thought done with reappears and fits perfectly.
One complaint I've seen is about her antecedents to pronouns, or the lack thereof. It is a little confusing, but I suspect it's somewhat purposeful. When Cromwell and Wolsey are talking, I like the idea that the two so identify with one another that it doesn't really matter which is speaking. Later, much later, the French ambassador has written about Thos Cromwell, "He says your antecedents are obscure, your youth reckless and wild, that you are a heretic of long standing, a disgrace to the office of councillor; but personally, he finds you a man of good cheer, liberal, openhanded, gracious ..." (pg 340) The confusions about Cromwell's character help the reader remain confused about him as the other characters are confused about his history. We have more of his history than they do, so Mantel has to throw us off the scent.
Looking forward to the next book. Next year sometime.
Wordy Wednesday Posts with Quotes: Nobody Will Cry For Him, Another History, Three-Card Trick, What Money Can Buy, Obscure Antecedents
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