by Hilary Mantel

The world of the English Tudors, particularly that of Henry VIII, is well-known to most of us. We studied about it in school; we have read novels, seen plays and countless films that cover the era. But Hilary Mantel offers a perspective on the period that is fresh and intriguing. The book is Wolf Hall, and it is the story of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s minister and most trusted advisor (at least for a time).

The son of a blacksmith who was a cruel and unsavory man, Thomas fought and scraped his way out of a hopeless childhood, traveled, studied, and learned. With resolute determination plus not a little political genius, he rose to a position of power greater than anyone in England at the time, other than the king himself. This was not a small accomplishment for a man with such humble beginnings.

During his illustrious career, Cromwell served the master power broker, Cardinal Wolsey. He was a faithful and shrewd assistant to that enigmatic man, and learned from him lessons that would help him in his later rise to the top. Even when the political winds shifted and Wolsey fell out of favor with the king, Cromwell remained true to the Cardinal. It is truly amazing to observe how he was able to move from a position of disfavor resulting from his association with Wolsey to a position of political power, wealth, and popularity in the court as well as in the city. His enemies were certainly puzzled by it. How did he manage it?

Although there is a lot of history mined here, the story is never slow or dull. The reader is carried along as the author explores the wit, the wisdom, the compassion, and the humanity of this man. She has brought Cromwell to life as a real flesh and blood person, adored by his family, respected by his colleagues, and feared by his enemies. As a reader you will be so drawn to him, but sometimes will wonder why. You will cringe at the torture endured by Protestant Christians who bravely fought for a Bible in English that the common people could read. You will be fascinated by the character of Henry himself who could be quite likeable one moment and a terror the next. It is a treat to encounter Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Anne and Mary Boleyn and a whole rich cast of characters who are so real, who come to life in Hilary Mantel’s writing.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2009, Wolf Hall is a great novel. As I read it, I struggled between not wanting to put it down and not wanting to finish it. Imagine how happy I was to learn that there is a sequel in the works!