My next book review is of Wolf Hall, a historical fiction novel by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. It is a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, a lower class man who rose to become one of the most powerful players in the court of King Henry VIII.
Cromwell’s rise to power took place as Henry VIII tried to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to marry the beguiling Anne Boleyn. This led to a schism with the Pope in Rome and the eventual establishment of the king as the head of the Church of England.
History has most often portrayed Thomas Cromwell as a villain, or at the very least an unprincipled man. However, at the end of this book, I was left with the strong feeling that Cromwell had been reprehensibly misrepresented by the historians. It’s that old saying that ‘there are two sides to every story’ – Mantel shone a bright light on Cromwell’s side, pointing it into every nook and cranny of his existence in order to bring to life an otherwise shadowy person in history. She made him human and tangible, creating a sympathetic character you wanted to support, not vilify.
What I found impressive about this novel was that Mantel managed to bring an entirely new twist to an already familiar story. I’ve seen the TV show The Tudors, I loved The Other Boleyn Girl in both movie and book form, and I’ve spent enough idle hours wandering around Wikipedia reading about Henry VIII and his many wives. So the fact that Mantel could bring something new to this tale is a testament to her skill as a storyteller. I was still compelled to turn the page even though I knew the big picture details all too well.
I was initially disappointed with the ending, thinking that there was so much more of the story left to tell. And indeed I was right, as I then discovered that there are actually two more books in the series: Bring Up the Bodies (winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize) and The Mirror and the Light (yet to be published). Excuse me while I just go and add two more titles to my To-Be-Read list…