Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallNOTE TO SELF: Do not start reading giant, complex historical novels on the day your final university exam results are due to be released.  Absorbing the content of such novels in the hours before such crucial, life-altering events will prove extremely difficult if not impossible.  Moreover, the shocking discovery that you did indeed achieve a First Class Honours degree against all the odds (such as developing an extreme blogging addiction in the final weeks of the course instead of diligently revising French verbs for inevitably soul-destroying translation exams) will result in the aforementioned giant, complex historical novel being abandoned for longer than you anticipated and therefore will be quite hard to get back into once you have recovered from the realisation that maybe, just maybe, you will one day get a Proper Job like a Real Person and that some may even consider you to be a semi-valuable member of society once your good-for-nothing-student days are behind you.

This has been my experience of reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel this week.  Obviously, the context in which I read it is always going to be more memorable for me than the content of the actual book itself.  I did manage to finish it but I think that it is the sort of book you can easily give up on if you don’t invest enough time in it and keep up the momentum of reading.  If I hadn’t made myself sit down and finish the last 200 or so pages today, I too would have given up on it as I suspect many others already have.

Told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, ‘Wolf Hall’ is set in the first three decades of the 16th century and primarily focuses on Henry VIII’s attempts to annul his marriage to his first wife after she fails to produce a male heir for him.  It probably does help if you have a reasonably thorough knowledge of Tudor history in order to follow what happens.  But Mantel has obviously done her research thoroughly and in her writing, she skilfully explains the background of events so that readers less familiar with the historical events can still appreciate it.  There are a lot of secondary characters though and I found that the various ambassadors, earls, clergymen etc all became a bit faceless for me because there were just so many of them to keep track of.

‘Wolf Hall’ won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and has been almost unanimously praised by critics.  Given that I wasn’t exactly bowled over by the 2010 Booker Prize winner ‘The Finkler Question’  by Howard Jacobson which I read last week, I wondered beforehand if this would be another example of an over-hyped slog of a book winning one of the most prestigious literary prizes when any normal person would abandon it forever after three chapters.   Even though I don’t read a great deal of historical fiction, it’s pretty obvious that ‘Wolf Hall’ is a step above the average for that genre in terms of both its scope and literary ambition.  Mantel’s interpretation of events is richly detailed and brings real life to the character of Thomas Cromwell.  I look forward to reading the sequel ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ at some point in the future – hopefully when I am less distracted by other things.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

  1. I didn’t find “Wolf Hall” hard to follow, but I had the advantage you mentioned helping: a pretty thorough knowledge of the big picture at Henry’s court from … I can’t believe I’m admitting this … watching “The Tudors” and then looking at a few history books to figure out what had basis in fact and what was sleazy (but apparently compulsively watchable) nonsense. Hearty congratulations on the exams!

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  2. Congratulations! I really am going to have to get round to reading Wolf Hall one of these days…

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  3. Congratulations on your exam results!

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  4. I enjoyed it a lot to, with no other major distractions! here is m review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/08/18/review-63-wolf-hall/
    and the one on Bring Up The Bodies, you will love it even more: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/06/13/2012-27-review-bring-up-the-bodies/

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  5. Brilliant! You had me at ‘NOTE TO SELF’ 🙂
    And Congrats!

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  6. Great review and good info to know. I just picked this one up at a bookstore a few weeks ago so I’ll have to start reading it this summer.

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  7. Congrats on such a superb result with your degree – obviously getting distracted with blogging didn’t do you any harm!

    I loved Wolf Hall but did have the benefit of knowing the history of that period pretty well. Even so I got confused by all the characters and had to keep reminding myself who they all were at times. Mantel’s style was also sometimes a bit difficult – she would suddenly make reference to a person or a place in as if we should already know who they were. The name of Wolf Hall just materialised and I never really got to grips with what it was.

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  8. I really enjoyed Wolf Hall…it was a very fun read. Bring Up The Bodies was also enjoyable. Hope that you get to read the 2nd book when you are not so busy so that you’ll be able to enjoy it more.

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  9. I loved Wolf Hall. I recently read Bring up the bodies, and loved it too, maybe more so.

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  10. I bought this book for my dad for Christmas, who is a historical fiction fan. He’ll read anything with Roman Centurions. It’s kind of telling that he’s yet to finish Wolf Hall.

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  11. What to read next!!

    I liked this but it was hard going as so much was dialogue which and it was hard to keep track of who was speaking. My wife just read her mammoth tome on the French Revolution, which she enjoyed.

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  12. What to read next!!

    Sorry – can you edit the comment above – I mistyped the grammar and I hate to do that!!

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  13. I gave up reading this book about 1/2 way through. Maybe I need to go back and give it another try. The follow-up book is getting lots of good reviews.

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  20. I know this post is now old and Wold Hall is even older news, but I’m still struggling with this novel! I was so excited when it came out as I’m something of a Tudor tragic and have a reasonably decent historical knowledge of the era. But I just couldn’t get into it. There’s a stage I go through when reading most books (it generally happens in the first 3-5 chapters) when a book sinks its hooks in. I become invested, the characters have roped me in and I need to know what happens or (in this case) follow them as history unwinds. I got nearly half way through this book and still no hooks. I still went and bought the sequel as I am such a fan of the period. I heard its a little easier to read so I’m contemplating skipping on ahead…

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  23. Will be interesting to see how the TV adaptation goes.

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