Thursday, January 14, 2010

Men or Wolves

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel

In England in the 1530s, politics and religion are inextricable, and King Henry is attempting to divorce his first wife, Katherine, in order to marry the woman he loves, Anne Boleyn, with or without the permission of the Pope. Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, becomes Henry VIII's chief adviser through his own cunning and ingenuity in tumultuous times. We see most of the story through Cromwell's point of view, though the writing is in third person. There are so many characters, especially men, that it is easy to get confused with the Thomases and Henrys, but the list of characters at the beginning is extremely helpful for sorting everyone out, and I managed to get on better once I discovered that any "he" with no clear antecedent generally refers to Cromwell.

The story is extremely well-crafted, written in present tense, repeating certain phrases and highlighting the metaphor of wolves with the title. Besides being the actual home of the Seymours, Wolf Hall aptly describes King Henry VIII's court and his counselors vying for power: "The saying comes to him, homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man" (468) sums up the constant political machinations, infighting and backbiting that's going on throughout the story. Indeed, I found most of the characters, except perhaps Gregory Cromwell, unlikeable and felt that Cromwell was - purposely but frustratingly - a bit of an enigma. As the best historical fiction does, Wolf Hall gave me more detailed information than a mere high school textbook about a particular period and interested me in learning more. I only wish that the author's note gave more detail about background sources that I could go to next, and where she either reinterpreted or took liberties with the historical record. The present-tense narration takes some getting used to. I found it distracting, particularly in one chapter that covered about nine years in such away that left me a little confused about the chronological order of events. But at the same time, I cannot fault the author for her choice, because it gives the reader with a sense of immediacy - all this may have happened 400 years ago, but you are there with the characters, traveling as they do through their choices and compelled to read on to find out what happens next. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and Tudor England from a political point of view.

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