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Wolf Hall    by Hilary Mantel order for
Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
Order:  USA  Can
Macmillan, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - which won the Man Booker Prize for 2009 - shows familiar events of Henry VIII's reign through the eyes of those swimming in the shoals around the powerful noble sharks, in particular lowborn statesman Thomas Cromwell. I listened to the novel in an audiobook (18 CDs, 23 hours) brilliantly narrated, with subtle shifts of tone, by Simon Slater. Though Slater's speaking of the parts made individuals of both sexes come alive for me through their dialogue (especially Thomas himself and his politically astute mentor/father figure Cardinal Wolsey), I found the author's approach of shifting back and forth in time less suitable in audio than in text format, and was at times confused while listening to it.

The story starts - with a kick - by showing blacksmith's son Cromwell as a boy undergoing a horrific beating from his father - unfortunately a regular event. He escapes with help from his sister Cat and Welsh brother-in-law, after which the account fast forwards to show Thomas as Cardinal Wolsey's valued assistant. After fighting on the continent, he established himself as a lawyer, a skilled negotiator and talented man of business. He knows the entire new Testament by heart, speaks multiple languages (French, Latin and Italian fluently), and is a pragmatist who is able to make things happen. Determined to give his children a better childhood than his own, he's also a wonderful father and a loving husband to his wife Liz.

As the story moves back and forth in time, we hear about Liz's untimely and very sudden death (in a half day from sweating sickness); Cardinal Wolsey's long downfall and ultimate demise; Cromwell's attempts to support and protect the man to whom he owes so much; Thomas More's ambitions and regular burning of Cromwell's heretic friends at the stake; the sharp-tongued Lady Anne Boleyn's astute handling of King Henry and the reactions of all those around her to it; and common folks' sympathy for Queen Katharine of Aragon (who suffered many miscarriages and lost several children as infants), as well as her support from her nephew the Emperor.

Over time, and especially after the Cardinal's death, King Henry consults Cromwell and relies on him more and more for advice and for his organizational skills, making him part of his Privy Council and leading to succesively higher offices. Cromwell, who has a vision for the future of England and compassion for its common folk, encourages Henry to split with the Pope (whom they call the Bishop of Rome). He organizes the dissolution of the monasteries and makes many new laws reforming government. He is fond of young Jane Seymour, whose family seat is at Wolf Hall.

The entire story feels like we are dropping into Cromwell's life and watching it unfold, dropping out again when he is at the peak of his power (but with the seeds of his downfall already sown). Wolf Hall is a remarkable novel, a must read for anyone interested in Tudor history.

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