It takes a while to get used to Mantel’s rather unorthodox use of quotation marks and the third-person pronoun ‘he’, but once you get over these hurdles Wolf Hall is a thoroughly engrossing read. Charting the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel uses a historically accurate skeleton and fills in the blanks with descriptive prose. She provides an intimate portrait of Cromwell’s wit and cunning, his personal life and his relationships. Less clear are Cromwell’s ultimate motivations. It is clear that he is ostensibly a Protestant, yet at the same time he appears almost atheistic in his lack of concern for the act of prayer itself. He serves Henry but at one point it is pointed out that Henry may even fear him. There is an opaqueness to the heart of this character – presumably this is just Machiavellian realpolitik – but there is no description of his actual motivations. Hopefully this will be fleshed out further in volumes 2 and 3.
The England of the 1520s and the Machiavellian struggles of Cromwell reminded me of another anti-hero: Tyrion Lannister from George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. While the novels bear some resemblance on the surface, they are obviously different beasts. However I can’t help thinking that if Game of Thrones were ‘historical fiction’ rather than ‘fantasy and sci-fi’ it would get more praise in literary circles – when I read the novel ten years ago, pre-HBO series, there was very little fanfare about it at all, and yet it is surely a masterpiece as good as, if not greater than, Wolf Hall.
But back to Wolf Hall. While at times I feel like Mantel doesn’t completely get into the heads of her characters – indeed she seems to hold them at arm’s length – there is no doubt that this is a descriptive and evocative tale that any fan of historical fiction and political intrigue will enjoy. I have noted down the publication date of the paperback of Bring Up The Bodies (volume two) – the 7th of May in the UK – and will be ordering it as soon as it is released.
Bottom line: While it takes some time to get used to Mantel’s grammar, this is an engrossing political novel well worth reading ★★★★