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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What I’m Reading: Wolf Hall

Today I have my review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. But first an editor’s note.  I am not sure why it took me this long to think of posting the audiobook cover and linking to the audible.com record of the book when I have listened to it.  Oh well, better late than never.

Now here’s why you need to read my review, even though I am probably the millionth person to read this popular and critically acclaimed book.  I am not a Tudors lover. I am not a Tudor hater either; I am indifferent.  However, I do love  well researched and compelling historical fiction novels.  But it is important to note here that we all encounter many readers that love everything and anything if it features a Tudor.  Fiction-Nonficion-Magazine articles- TV shows.  Those people will find this book on their own.  This review will be helpful for you to identify other readers who may also enjoy this novel.

[By the way, reading this book made me think of pitting all my Tudor Lovers vs the legions of Jane Austen fans.  What a great display idea.  Literary Smack-Down: Tudors vs Austen!  But I digress.]

In case you don’t know, the plot of this 650 page, first of a trilogy, is easy to explain.  The entire series follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, through his eyes (but in an omniscient third person) beginning, in Wolf Hall, with his service to the Cardinal, leading up to Henry VIII divorce of Catherine, marriage to Anne Boleyn, and ending with the execution of Thomas Moore. So the 1520s and 30s.

Because I do not know all of the intricate details and timelines for the drama that was Henry VIII, I did go to some resources to get a sketch of Cromwell’s life before reading this novel.  I don’t normally do that, but since this was such a leisurely paced journey through the era and names were thrown around willy nilly, I wanted to have a way to listen up for the key moments.  Huge fans of the era would notice more foreshadowing on their own.

So if not the Tudors, what did I enjoy.  I read  for the politics, the sweeping picture of life in the 1520s, the characters from all walks of life, the rich details, the intricate plot, and the wonderfully rounded out historical characters.

Specifically I was intrigued by the research Mantel did to uncover how much of a bigger role Cromwell actually played in the events that led up to the marriage of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.  This novel also made me appreciate how this was a turning point for English history.  Without the intervention of Cromwell, I don’t think Henry would have broken away from Rome and married Anne.  Without that marriage there is no Queen Elizabeth.  And, without Elizabeth maybe no Shakespeare.  Ahh, the horror. It is interesting to see how different things could be without Cromwell.

Also because of Cromwell’s position as a business person who started in the gutter and rose to be the right hand man of a King, we see all walks of life in this novel.  You get a wonderful panoramic view of what life was like in the 1520s. I loved hearing details about his household.  The side jaunts where Mantel goes away from the characters in the Court and looks at the lives of the regular people were among my favorite scenes. Wolf Hall placed me firmly in the time and place while I was reading the novel.  This is a huge accomplishment by Mantel, and one of the main reasons she won the Booker Prize for this work.

So that’s how a non-Tudor fan could enjoy this novel.  I am glad I read it; however, I know what is going to happen.  We all do.  Lots of heads will be lost, Cromwell’s included, and eventually, Elizabeth, the daughter of Anne and Henry will rise to be Queen, the first female to inherit the crown.  So that’s all for me in the trilogy.  I liked it plenty, but want to find another sweeping historical novel about a new place a time.  One where I can be similarly caught up in the people, places, and events, but in a new frame. I’m good on the Tudors for a while.

Notes on the audio: The narrator Simon Slater did a good job, but I don’t think he improved upon the book at all. But, I do know that I never would have made it through reading this book.  I definitely would have given up, but the audio kept me going.  I prefer a straight up first person narration for my audiobooks, so the third person omniscient with the focus on Cromwell took a little getting used to.  There were a lot of characters and Slater could have differentiated his voice a bit more for some of them, but the big characters had distinct voices. He did not do female voices particularly well and being that there were a few key female players, this did get a little confusing at times.  Though part of that is on me as I did not know the history as well going in.

Three Words That Describe This Book: sweeping, extremely detailed, historically accurate

Readalikes: As I mentioned, anything Tudors works here.  There is so so so so much.  Click here to begin your journey through the literary world of Tudor England.

Recently, my book group read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, and Wolf Hall came up during out discussion. Click here for details.

In NoveList, Katherine Johnson suggests Mistress in the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin:
"Like Wolf Hall, Mistress of the Art of Death has a strong, accurate historical sense of place and time, and portrays a maligned figure, Henry II, sympathetically. Unlike Wolf Hall, it's a mystery with less focus on historical characters, but will still enthrall discerning readers."
But in my opinion, for people who like the details of life in England’s  pre-indutrial age, readers who don’t need the Tudors to be part of the story but love the epic sweeping details, the back stabbing, and the drama of life in that era, I highly suggest Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  Click here for my full review including more readalike options.

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