What is there to say about Wolf Hall that hasn’t already been said? I am, as always, very late to the party, and am really quite cross with myself for putting off reading it for so long. I was daunted by its length, by its covering a period of history with which I am not excessively familiar, and by its use of present tense narration – a device I normally can’t stand, for no particular reason. Obviously as soon as I was past the first chapter, all of these things ceased to be a problem and I was well and truly absorbed in the world of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. Hilary Mantel is actually a genius; her use of a range of different narrative styles; free indirect discourse, reported speech and indirect discourse, all combine to make a wonderfully immediate and fresh sounding narrative voice that keeps the reader inside the mind of Thomas Cromwell while also allowing an insight into the hearts and minds of the many and various characters who people his world. The language she uses is also different to most historical fiction; it is handled with a deft, light touch; the syntax is only slightly altered, the vocabulary thoughtfully adapted, to create a realistic sense of the past while also ensuring that the dialogue remains crisp, vital and refreshingly modern. The novel is therefore peopled by passionate, emotional, cruel, loving, violent, aggressive and occasionally foul-mouthed creatures who would certainly not feel out of place on the streets of London in 2015, though are still very much rooted in the Tudor era. This ability to bridge the gap between history and modernity, to recreate the past without resorting to formulaic or laboured use of antiquated vocabulary, is really quite extraordinary, and I can’t think of another historical novel like it.
I don’t know enough about Cromwell to comment on the accuracy of Mantel’s portrayal; I know that he is a divisive figure, maligned and admired in equal measure, but Mantel’s interpretation of him is warm and sensitive, rendering him a magnetic force for both readers and characters alike. I was absolutely fascinated by the journey he took from the mean streets of Putney to the private chambers of Henry VIII. The forensic exploration of what kind of a person you have to be: what measure of courage and tenacity and intelligence it takes to drag yourself up from the cobbles of your father’s blacksmith’s yard to be within touching distance of your King is what makes this tale of a man dead for half a millennium so timeless and so utterly relevant to contemporary readers. It is the story of someone utterly self-made, utterly self-reliant, and utterly self-assured; someone who overcomes the most awful of childhoods and the most profound of griefs in order to manoeuvre themselves into a position to make a difference to the world around them, and for that quality alone, aside from all of the wrangles over Henry and Anne, it is worth reading. It is almost magical in its magnificence; Mantel weaves such a mesmerising web that it is hard to extricate yourself from the world she creates, and I could barely drag myself away from its pages. Even if you think historical novels aren’t for you, you have no interest in the Tudor period, or normally run a mile from doorstep length novels, you need to put your prejudices to one side and give this a go. It’s an unforgettable reading experience, and I already can’t wait to get stuck into Bring up the Bodies.