Towards the end of last year I decided that in 2015 I really must try to read some of the many books that I have been given but not yet read. One such book was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

I was given a lovely hardback edition of this novel by my mother-in-law back in 2009, yet for some inexplicable reason, I had never got round to reading it. This is especially odd given how much praise the novel has received (winning the Man Booker prize, amongst other accolades) – and the fact that my wife has been telling me to read it ever since she fell in love with it about three years ago!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

However, I have now finally made amends and read this acclaimed novel – and I am certainly glad to have done so.

For anyone who has not heard of the book before, or who knows little about it, it is a historical novel focusing on the extraordinary life of Thomas Cromwell, who was born the son of a drunken blacksmith, yet rises to ever greater levels of success and power in the court of Henry VIII.

(As a slight aside, Mantel takes an unusual approach with her narrative, in that it is all from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, yet is written in the third person. For the first few pages I found the repeated use of “he” a little odd, but I very soon got used to this, and have to say that the device seems to fit the tale perfectly.)

Now, let me acknowledge at this point that I am no great history buff. In fact, the “historical fiction” label might have been partly what put me off picking up this novel sooner. However, what I can testify to is that this is brilliant fiction.

Despite the fact that this is a 650 page novel and I that have been busier than a one-armed paper hanger lately, I still managed to read it in three weeks simply because it is just that good and that gripping that you cannot help but read on, even when it’s 1am and you still have 7 other jobs to finish.

So, what is it that is so good about this novel?

Firstly, the character of Thomas Cromwell. He is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant and fascinating central characters I have ever had the pleasure to read about. He is clearly very bright, witty, and multi-talented. At his best, he is also brave, kind, and fiercely loyal. However, he is also a lawyer and can be as cunning as a fox, and he certainly knows how to turn any situation to his advantage. In temperament he is ever calm and rational, even in the most tumultuous of situations. He typically keeps his cards very close to his chest, yet occasionally we do see hints of the pain and anger he feels inside. In short, Thomas Cromwell is a fully fleshed out, complex and intriguing character.

He, Cromwell, is no longer subject to vagaries of temperament, and he is almost never tired. Obstacles will be removed, tempers will be soothed, knots unknotted. Here at the close of the year 1533, his spirit is sturdy, his will strong, his front imperturbable. The courtiers see that he can shape events, mould them. He can contain the fears of other men, and give them a sense of solidity in a quaking world…

Next, there is a host of other brilliant characters. Cardinal Wolsey (Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor), is another complex and intriguing being: a spiritual man, yet wise to the ways of the world and to how countries are run. At times proud, powerful and resourceful, yet at other times, he is sentimental, light-hearted and paternal (especially to Cromwell). Then there is the character of King Henry himself. Again, Hilary Mantel presents us with a truly multi-faceted being, who is shown to have great strengths as well as great weaknesses. The relationships between these three key characters is truly fascinating.

Another great strength of this book it Mantel’s mastery of pace and plot development. The narrative is so well constructed that it is a joy to read. There is no waffle or unnecessary detail; every page is meaningful, every page is gripping, and every page moves the story forwards. To my mind, Hilary Mantel achieves in Wolf Hall the essence of great narrative writing:  namely the ability to show and not tell her tale. Nothing here is laboured or heavy-handed, yet she manages to convey so much through a single scene or piece or dialogue. The text is lightly scattered with little anecdotes and snippets of conversation, which not only move the action forward, but which do so in a way that ever-so-subtly conveys little details about the characters involved: their intentions, their hopes, their fears, their reactions, and their true allegiances.

I could go on, but I will stop there. If you have read all of my review so far, you will not be surprised to hear that this novel is going straight into My Top 50 favourite novels of all time. This is truly great literary fiction.

But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.

Finally, I will mention that the BBC are currently broadcasting a six part dramatic production of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (the second novel in this trilogy). I have only seen the first two episodes so far, but have been very impressed with the adaptation. If you live in the UK you can still catch this series by going to the BBC Wolf Hall website.

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