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Friday, 28 August 2009

Books: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Star rating - 6/10

Well we all think we know just about everything there is to know about the Tudors, and in particular the lustings of Henry VIII, followed by the legal and religious justifications that were concocted afterwards to justify his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantle has told the story from a different and unfamiliar point of view with this book – that of Thomas Cromwell.

She takes us from his humble beginnings and violent childhood in Putney, to his devotion to Cardinal Wolsey through his post as legal secretary, to even more devotion to Henry himself as his chief minister after the fall of his former master. It has to be said that it is a very long book (650 pages in all) but it is nonetheless the 2:1 favourite for this year’s Man Booker prize.
Mantel does keep the story flowing very well, with a vast and intricate cast of characters that does, however, get a bit confusing in places. It was difficult to work out if that was because of the number of players, or if her style of flashbacks to earlier action muddied the waters a little.
She obviously likes to take a different viewpoint to the accepted version of these familiar characters. Thomas Moore, for instance, is not portrayed in a particularly flattering light. He seems pompous and even cruel to his long suffering wife – whom he says he only married to keep house, and whom he forces to endure long conversations with his dinner guests in Latin, even though she can’t understand a word of it. So a very different portrayal from the usual Man for all Seasons then. But Anne Boleyn is pictured here, as in many other retellings of the tale, as a Machiavellian character with no redeeming features at all, who had "a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes".

This is a good yarn, interestingly retold from Cromwell’s point of view, with a flowing and easy style that kept me reading until the bitter end. And although we all do know how it all ends – with the executions of both Anne Boleyn and Cromwell himself eventually, Mantel chooses to leave us with the tantalising prospect of Henry just about to make a five day trip to Wolf Hall – home of one Jane Seymour…

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