This is a novel of dark and glimmering brilliance, a novel of edges and shadows, a novel that revels in unabashed strangeness and in the pacing of a dream. It is elemental — that is, it is fueled by a storytelling that fixates on the earth and fire, water and wind, of England — and it lures the reader into the unsteady, seasick, rhythm of terror.
Wolf Hall is Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning tale that imagines the life of Thomas Cromwell, a poor-born man of quiet cunning and weird decency who rises to become Henry VIII's closest adviser in the turbulent years of England's break with the Roman Catholic Church. Prominent in this story is Sir Thomas More, Henry's one-time lord chancellor who himself saw dozens of people tortured and killed for heresy before ultimately being executed himself for lack of loyalty to the king; he appears here as Cromwell's strongest enemy and, in some ways, his alter ego. As a New Yorker review put it, "More and Cromwell were enemies, and history has taken More’s side."* More was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1935, and he is portrayed sympathetically in, for example, Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons. Alternatively, Cromwell is remembered as a devious man of the shadows, pulling the strings during one of the bloodiest times of Britain's history, the skulking craftsman behind the building of a modern England.
Hilary Mantel, then, takes on a daunting task of recounting the story of Cromwell, and of More, in a way that complicates all other stories told of them. More becomes frightening on these pages — though not altogether villainous. Cromwell becomes appealing — though not altogether sympathetic. Mantel, being the extraordinary writer she is, does not let us readers settle. In a novel that sidesteps some of the most obvious points of drama of the time (for example, as elevated as the story of Anne Boleyn is, both before and after her marriage to Henry VIII, readers don't get to witness the moment she becomes queen), this is what keeps the story from treading ground that is trite and over-told. It is this uncertainty that is compelling and dynamic. This is what propels us through these pages afire. It is worth adding that this historical novel is told in present tense: nothing, then, feels inevitable. This is another way that readers are unmoored from traditional vantages on a time that is slick with so many eyes looking back at it, still.
I am also interested in how Mantel uses pronouns: while we are in the third-person point-of-view, close to Cromwell throughout all of it, the narration almost never refers to the protagonist by name. He is simply "he," which provides plenty of moments of dissonance when the reader is unsure who "he" signifies. This is a clever strategy for textually manifesting the unsettled rendering of Cromwell, as well as revealing his sharp sense of observation and of illuminating his ubiquitous role in a story that is not only his own.
The narrative further is buoyed by Mantel's gift for description. Now, let me first say that I feel like description has come to be much undervalued in fiction, as if it is too simple (a pile of pretty adjectives) to be interesting, or else it is notewothy only in how it transforms landscape into "character" — as if description can't itself be a complex craft device in fiction without being conflated into something else. Wolf Hall uses description in a way that is both subtle and precise; it is uneasily gorgeous and utterly original. Consider this moment, just after Cromwell's final and scorching conversation with More (in which the 'them' refers to Cromwell and one of his young proteges, and 'he' is Cromwell):
The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green. He stares down into the water, now brown, now clear as the light catches it, but always moving; the fish in its depths, the weeds, the drowned men with bony hands swimming. On the mud and shingle there are cast up belt buckles, fragments of glass, small warped coins with the kings’ faces washed away. Once when he was a boy he found a horseshoe. A horse in the river? It seemed to him a very lucky find. But his father said, if horseshoes were lucky, boy, I would be the King of Cockaigne.
Beautiful? Sort of. Terrifying? Sort of. We readers are left to shift, to try to keep our balance on unsteady ground.
Another artful moment of description, here rendering Anne Boleyn in the dinner company of the king's friends:
Anne is brittle in their company, and as ruthless with their compliments as a housewife snapping the necks of larks for the table. If her precise smile fades for a moment, they all lean forward, anxious to know how to please her. A bigger set of fools you would go far to seek.
What I like about Mantel's striking descriptions, which have a habit of sneaking up on the reader, is that they simmer with the particularity of place while at the same time creating space for the mystical and the intangible. Such description parallels the building-blocks of Wolf Hall's story exactly: a story that is about the sacred and the profane, politics and prayer, bread and Body, wine and blood.
Aside from an early scene in Cromwell's childhood, this 530-page novel only spans eight years. We don't see Anne Boleyn go to the Tower (though the warning signs are showing); we don't see any indication that Cromwell himself will be executed five years after the novel's close. This doesn't feel like a lack; rather, Mantel's centering of the conflict with More gets exactly the right amount of attention. All the same, though, I understand Mantel is at work on a follow-up novel to Wolf Hall. I tell you, I can't wait.
Some people tell me I am prone to exaggeration, of the 'best-book-ever' variety. Maybe that is so. But I hope that won't diminish what I say now, with utter clarity and calm: Hilary Mantel is surely one of our greatest living writers. Wolf Hall is a treasure that will last and last and last.
* This is a review that, weirdly, seems to get basic facts about the novel wrong. It says, for example, Cromwell's daughter Grace was his favorite, when, though he loved the little one, the text clearly indicates that is was his older girl Anne that he felt the greatest affinity for. "Anne wants to learn Greek," is a tender refrain in Cromwell's memory of his dead daughters.