Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

One approaches a review of a book which won the Man Booker Prize (2009) with some trepidation. Reviewers of the highest repute passed early judgement and showered copious praises on this opus magnus of 650 pages. So although one would like to begin any book review with some positive remarks, and in this case to share some of the glow of satisfaction manifested by the judges of the great prize, it is not easy in a book with flaws that seem to overwhelm the undoubted scholarship and novelty of approach to an old and oft-told story.The first and biggest problem is the style of writing. Although not written in the first person the narrative is presented from the perspective of the historical figure of Thomas Cromwell. The reader is almost never told that it is Cromwell who is speaking, and this frequently leads to passages needing to be carefully reread to fully understand the import of the dialogue. Cromwell’s words are always assigned by ‘he said,’ inducing in the reader the repeated question, ‘who said?’A second problem is the character of Thomas Cromwell, who is presented as a man so far ahead of his time and his contemporaries as to provoke incredulity. One doubts if a person with his attributed humanitarian sentiments could have risen to such pre-eminence in those brutal times of naked ambition. He speaks of having once stabbed a man under the ribs but if he ever stabbed anyone in the back it is left unrecorded. The real Thomas Cromwell plotted the execution of Anne Boleyn, but that was after the time of the book’s ending, and is hard to imagine of the Cromwell of the book.Another problem involves both the title of the book and its ending. Wolf Hall is the home of the Seymour family, and as every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows, Jane Seymour was destined to become King Henry VIII’s next wife after Anne Boleyn. This unmentioned history is apparently intended to be a shadow overhanging the narrative, but it is too thinly expressed to have the impact that it might otherwise have achieved. Such a subtle mist might be appreciated by professors of history and the august judges of the Man Booker Prize but one suspects that it leaves most lay readers, including this reviewer, in a state of uncertainty.The idea of the book is a good one, and must have involved a great deal of historical research, but it might have been developed in a more dramatic way. The light touch leads to a long end passage of fading narrative interest. The only incentive to go on is to gain the satisfaction of completing all 650 pages.