Hilary Mantel has created a novel both fresh and finely wrought: a brilliant portrait of a society in the throes of disorienting change, anchored by a penetrating character study of Henry's formidable advisor, Thomas Cromwell. (The Washington Post).
I had mixed feelings about this novel, before I began. I am familiar with the characters history and they continue to lie posthumously in the media, perhaps over-used by various authors and film makers. Although a dark-brooding monarch in The Tudors, Henry quickly became the morbidly obsessed wife-killer with a disgusting leg injury. That's the historically accurate truth.1
The personage of Thomas Cromwell, however, is often in the background in popular culture. But in Wolf Hall we observe Thomas from his abusive childhood to where his political scheming come to fruition: Thomas More's execution.
The contemporary language and present tense draw us in, make us part of the scene, of court, and is good enough to make up for the fact that we are too familiar with the story to be surprised by the events. Yet, Mantel cleverly uses the latter to her advantage. 'Any little girl can hold the key to the future,' Cromwell muses when he looks at the young Jane Seymour, who, as we know, will end up being wife number three.
Fortunately, not every reader knows about Thomas Cromwell's life in great detail, which makes the story less predictable. For those in the know proverbs like homo homini lupus (Man is wolf to man) allude to the bleak future of the people who surrounded Henry and Thomas Cromwell.
The fact that this book (and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies) won the Man Booker Prize (2009, 2012) illustrates how great a read this is. I would give this book a 5-star rating, however, a part of me does not think a recasting of such popular history is of the same calibre as the other books that I have given 5 stars. Therefore, 4.5 stars.
1 Philippa Gregory's work about the women in Henry's life is also fairly realistic, and not as romantic as those of others authors.