I would not have thought that a historical novel could work in first person, but Mantel pulls it off. This book is beautifully written. Apart from the compelling story, it is wonderful to discover passage after passage, on nearly every page, written in intricate, poetical, yet accessible prose.
The main character is Thomas Cromwell, and Mantel creates of him a superhero of sorts. At the same time he is an obviously flawed man with singular gifts who somehow manages to ingratiate himself to King Henry of England. Henry wants to be rid of his wife Elizabeth, who has not given him a male heir, and marry Anne Boleyn. To bring this about, Cromwell has to help Henry orchestrate a break from the Pope’s authority and the establishment of the Church of England.
The story is gripping from the very first passage, when young Cromwell is severely beaten by his father and decides to leave home. He spends several years overseas before returning to England and becoming a lawyer. He first serves the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, and when Wolsey falls into disfavor Henry, recognizing Cromwell’s talents, takes him into his confidence and gives him more and more responsibility.
Wolf Hall has a large cast of characters, and I admit that I was unable to keep some of the secondary ones clear as I read. There were just too many. Some of the characters in Henry’s court are very similar to one another, and I found it easy to follow the main story even as minor characters became blurred caricatures in my awareness.
One character, in fact the main character apart from Cromwell, is not even human. It is England itself: the countryside, the weather, the flora and fauna. Mantel’s writing becomes exquisitely beautiful when she describes changes of seasons, glimpses of landscape beyond windows, rooms seen in flickering firelight, muddy roads, meandering rivers, rain and snow. Her prose has great power to evoke images.
It’s a long novel. Just as some of the secondary characters become confusing to follow on first reading, so do some of the many scenes, especially in the middle sections of the book. Sometimes it seems that too many things are happening to keep track of. Additionally, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who is saying what in the dialog until you understand that whenever Mantel says “he” instead of naming a character when introducing dialog, by default the speech is Cromwell’s.
Despite the occasional confusion with characters, scenes, and dialog, this book is a worthwhile read. If you persevere through the first few hundred pages, the plot begins to manifest more clearly. And even if you miss some of the details, you are swept along in a superbly written account of a fascinating era of history. I would say that it is useful to have some sort of inkling of the historical story before commencing the novel; it will make much more sense. However, regardless of your historical expertise, you can enjoy this well-written book on its own merits as a novel.