I’m late to the party on this one, but Hilary Mantel’s incredible historical novel Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell during the reign of Henry VIII is certainly going to make it to my Year in Books post for 2013.
At first I couldn’t figure out how on earth a historical novel had won a Booker Prize (Mantel won for both this book and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, the first time a woman has won a Booker Prize twice and the first time anyone has won for a sequel) but as I read I realized how truly well done this book is. It’s not a self-congratulatory, ostentatiously literary book as some prize winners are. Rather, I think the book won on the strength of the incredibly rich and well developed characters and the amazing layers in the story.
The main character of the book is Thomas Cromwell, who served in various capacities in government during Henry VIII’s reign. I’ve never read such a nuanced account of Cromwell’s life and perspective, and his point of view brings an interesting light to Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn. If you’re at all a student or fan of British history (especially if you’re the type who reads Alison Weir) I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
But even if you’re not generally interested in Tudor England, I think you’d be drawn into the story. I was amazed at the ways Mantel integrated the sort of knowledge learned people would have in that time period, with all sorts of quotes and references to classics. Interestingly, if you’ve read Moonwalking with Einstein, you’ll recognize some of the memory techniques and history that author uses at work in this book as well (I love it when I read seemingly unrelated books that dovetail!).
The lovely thing about coming late to a literary party is that the sequel is generally ready when you finish the first book. As soon as I finished Wolf Hall I began the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, which also won a Booker Prize as I stated above. The sequel follows on the heels of the first book, and covers the story of how Thomas Cromwell took down Anne Boleyn and several of her alleged co-conspirators.
The second book is tighter than the first (although Wolf Hall never drags or feels long) and doesn’t have the same references to memory that I enjoyed in the first, but it does delve in a very fascinating way into power. Mantel’s Cromwell is a highly decent man, who overcame a difficult upbringing to become a man of culture and refinement–deeply honest and loyal.
However, as his power increases, Cromwell is increasingly tempted to the ruthlessness he deplored in Thomas More. The book does a marvelous and nuanced job of exploring how this happens, how perspectives shift nearly imperceptibly over time, and how those changes are justified.
I think Mantel’s take on the Anne Boleyn trials is fascinating. Because it’s wrapped up in Cromwell’s internal life, the perspective is different than you might have read before, and casts a more reasonable doubt on the justice of the proceedings. The title of the book, Bring Up the Bodies, reflects this central conflict, as it is the call given to summon condemned men to the scaffold. The reader is left pondering what he or she might have done differently, if his or her life hung in the balance of a mercurial king’s favor. And if men are guilty of something does it excuse the fact that they are not guilty of that for which they are condemned? I think not, but Mantel expertly shows us how the whole thing could reasonably come to pass.
With excellent writing, highly engaging stories, and impressively developed characters, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies definitely deserved the accolades they received and I highly, highly recommend them.
If you’ve read Wolf Hall and/or Bring Up the Bodies, what did you think?
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