Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was on my to-read list as part my goal to real all of the Man-Booker and National Book Award prize winners for the last decade. It shot to the top of my to-read list when the members of The Opinionless Book Club all decided to start the http://bookermarks.wordpress.com/ project - a project where 7 bloggers will tackle the Booker long list to read and rate the books choosing our own short list and eventual winner.
Wolf Hall was the 2009 winner of the Man-Booker and Hilary Mantel released her second novel in the trilogy, Bringing Up The Bodies, this year making it Booker eligible. This book will surely make the long list and I am certain will also make the short list. So to not start a trilogy with the second book, I tackled the first, first.
As with most historical novels set outside of the revolutionary or civil war, I knew nothing of the story line except very vague details of Henry VIII, Ann Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. These three characters and umpteen thousand more are central to Wolf Hall. The storyline details the true history of the time but is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. Basically, King Henry VIII has been married to Queen Katherine for some 20 years but she has get to give birth to a male heir. In comes Ann Boleyn who will not give the king any honey without a ring on her finger (or being corinated as queen). So back in the day, a divorce was much harder to come by and basically a power struggle ensues between the church ( think Roman Catholics and the Pope) vs the King and his minions.
The secondary plot line running through the book is the advent of the protestants (not yet mentioned as such). Key characters to the secondary plot line are Thomas More, William Tyndale who had recently finished translating the Bible into English and mentioned briefly is Martin Luther.
What impressed me about Wolf Hall is the attention Mantel has to detail. She has long beautiful and flowing descriptions that allow the reader to feel the surroundings and to get a glimpse into exactly what Cromwell is thinking. I love Mantel's characterizations especially of Cromwell himself. She is able to show such a grand compassionate side and at the same time show his ruthlessness. As he is portrayed so deliberately with both personas, I could not help but admire him and all he was able to accomplish - good or bad. As I write this review, I think of Cromwell as more of a tender man than the tough as nails person he probably was.
My struggles with the book come from my lack of knowledge for this period in history. I caught myself wanting to understand the back ground story and so as I read the book I kept my cell phone with my Wikipedia app handy. I found that after I had researched a person or event, I then felt compelled to re-read the passage that influenced the research. For the first 200 pages or so I felt as if I was reading the book twice. My other struggle with the book was unfortunate timing and not related to the book itself. I have been able to sit down and read consistently for most of the year; however, with the beginning of Wolf Hall, my reading time has diminished. This is a book more easily read in a few sittings of an hour or more. For me this book did not work well in 15 minute snippets. I found myself re-reading any passages that I read in a snippet as I had not read enough to follow and remember what was happening. The third struggle was with the third person pronoun "He". Fortunately I was fore-warned that the pronoun was used continuously and that most often it was not accompanied with its reference noun. Luckily I was told that 95% of the time "he" referred to Thomas Cromwell. There were many passages though that I had to read and re-read and re-read again to get the proper voice and understanding. Many times I still could not be certain to whom a passage was actually referring.
My struggles aside, this was still a very fascinating and thrilling book. I could not wait to pick it up and was frustrated at my lack of time to sit down and read consistently. Fortunately this weekend, I had plenty of reading time and was able to read the last 300ish pages in two days. I can not wait to read Bringing Up the Bodies and I will be shocked if it does not make the long and the short Man Booker lists.