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The book's description from the publisher's website:
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?I'm starting this review off with my interpretation of the title. I've seen it mentioned that the title had nothing to do with the content of the novel or that it's only connected in relation to the residence of the Seymour's household by the name of Wolf Hall. It may be that I am over-analyzing, but I think that the title has a significant meaning. Cromwell has his sights set on Jane Seymour, the lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn. Even though she is a young girl, I believe that Jane mights have been the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing (she is even referred to as a sheep by Mary Boleyn in a conversation with Cromwell). The way I see it, Thomas Cromwell being the forever scheming, forever thinking ahead man, somehow suspected that Anne Boleyn might not have been the last serious target of Henry VIII's attentions. I don't think it was ever Cromwell's intent to marry Jane himself. He loved his deceased wife too much, thinking of her almost constantly throughout the whole novel. Think what you may, but why else would Hilary Mantel, who is obviously an intelligent writer, who knows what she's doing, titled her major piece of work in such a seemingly careless way?
On to my personal impression of Wolf Hall. This is not a 'fast and furious' type of read, so if you're looking for a lot of nail baiting action and quick pace, Wolf Hall will not meet your expectations. Ms. Mantel wrote a 'slow and steady wins the race' kind of book. And to me, it was a rewarding read. Especially in a sense that, for once, I got to use my mental capacities while reading, give my full attention to the book and oil those rusty brain cells of mine. I'm glad to know that books requiring readers to think a little deeper, and making us want to analyze and interpret what's written, are still being not only written, but internationally recognized.
Hilary Mantel has a rare style of narration. Third person, present tense is not commonly employed by authors, mostly, I imagine, due to its trickiness. It is very easy to make a story unbearable with this kind of narration. The first couple of pages of Wolf Hall may be teetering on the verge of confusion. The author's usage of third person pronouns, especially 'he', is one thing that readers complain about most often. I'm not sure that there is, first: an easy way around it, narration being in present tense, third person; second: all that much confusion there. I honestly wasn't confused and if you notice, all the other times when the narrator refers to characters other than Cromwell, 'he' is followed by the last name of the person mentioned. Does it require more effort on the reader's part? Yes, it does. But this narration gives us a better insight into who Thomas Cromwell was, what he felt, what really motivated him and a reason why Cromwell really was only a man, a human being, although a very unique, very smart, very observant and perceptive human being. Also, as I mentioned above, Wolf Hall is on the whole such a novel that will spur your brain cells into action. I'm happy about it and recognize the value of this book because I'm of the belief that literature is not to be written or read for entertainment only. If you prefer books that are entertaining only (not that there is anything wrong with it, we all have our tastes and opinions), you will not enjoy this novel.
The only complaint of mine and the reason for four stars, instead of five, is that I was emotionally distanced. Not completely detached, mind you. In a way, I felt for Cromwell, for his losses in personal life (his wife and his two daughters) and especially for his strong love for Liz, his late wife and his eldest daughter, Anna. In the end however, I noticed the lack of strong bond between me and the characters. And, if there is one thing that will always decide between my extreme like and utmost love for a novel, it's how emotionally vested I am in it.
Wolf Hall is book one in the Wolf Hall trilogy.
Book two, Bring Up the Bodies (which deals with the fall of Anne Boleyn), is coming out from Henry Holt & Co. tomorrow, May 8, 2012.
FTC: I bought my copy of Wolf Hall.